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Voyageur's Best Features of 2004

Firefigher putting out a fire

50 years of excellence
The Cromwell Fire Department
by Lynne Gilfus  | April 20, 2004

On May 14, 1953, an open meeting was held at the Cromwell School to discuss the organization of the Cromwell Volunteer Fire Department and Firemen’s Relief Association. Within the next week, the department was organized, a chief elected, and the construction of the first firefighting vehicle approved. There were a total of 15 members, and each paid yearly dues of one dollar. Their first training session, a showing of the film “Fire on Farms” was held in June, and it was decided that the fire department would respond to calls within an 8-mile radius of the town center. The money to pay for the equipment and materials needed to build their first truck was raised by pledges and donations from residents, $15 lifetime membership fees paid by homeowners, $50 non-member fees for fire responses, and fundraisers.

By 1954, the department had purchased the bank building (next to the present-day liquor store), and the homemade fire truck was ready for use. The membership rolls had swelled to 22, and the firemen had life insurance benefits. Best of all, they were “official”, with a Constitution and By-laws in place.

Fifty productive and active years later, the department is now the Cromwell Fire and Ambulance Service. The membership consists of 16 regular members, four “rookie” members, four trainees, and six auxiliary members. The department now has two pumper trucks, a tanker, a brush truck, and two ambulances. Everything is housed in the built-to-suit firehall next to the new bank building.

How does a successful and thriving fire department celebrate their 50th anniversary?

They throw a steak fry one week, and burn a house down the next.

The steak fry was held at the Pavilion on April 2, and the firefighters cooked, sold, delivered, and cleaned up about 300 steak dinners. Supporters of the department came from all over the area, and enjoyed the time spent with friends and neighbors.

About that house burning…

In the “old” days, firefighters trained on the job – by fighting real fires under emergency conditions. Now, government regulations mandate training for all firefighters under more controlled conditions. In the Cromwell area, live-burn training is accomplished when a landowner requests assistance in burning off a field or needs to have a structure demolished.

A Cromwell resident donated a house, so on Saturday, April 10, the live burn training took place in the middle of town at a long-empty residence. The building was carefully prepared to allow controlled burning, which enabled all of the trainees (“Probies”, said with affection) to enter the burning structure and get a feel for what it is like to fight a fire.

Cromwell invited other fire departments in the area to join in, and Wright, Esko, Wrenshall, Carlton, and Kettle River sent men and equipment to assist. Before the action could begin, Cromwell Assistant Fire Chief and Training Officer Mike Peterson held a briefing to make sure everyone was coordinated to make it successful for everyone there. Mike’s biggest concern?
“We do not trust our water system, period,” said Mike.

So, the focus for all departments was making sure the water supply was consistent. Tankers were designated to keep portable “drop” tanks full. Pumpers were positioned to supply water to the hoses from the portable tanks. Hose routes were carefully laid out to maximize water usage, as well as preserve the bushes and trees on the property. Then, firefighters were organized into groups, taking a shift inside the house or manning hoses and vehicles.

In the meantime, the firehall kitchen was being expertly organized by Fire Chief Steve Bridge, appointed by Mike as Head Chef of the day.

While the fire scene was being organized, everyone had a chance to evaluate the property. The house itself was only 15’ from the curbline of Highway 210. Immediately to the southwest, is a fenced-in yard surrounding a trailer home. Immediately to the east, is an occupied home. A pole barn lies directly to the south. By anyone’s standards, this controlled burn would be a challenge to even the most experienced firefighter.

Back in the firehall, preparations for the debriefing lunch after the burn were progressing. Chief/Head Chef Steve Bridge and firefighter Phil Lippo took the opportunity to reminisce as far as their memories could carry them back into the history.

Steve joined the organization in 1978.

“You were still in high school,” said Phil to Steve.

Phil joined the department in 1969, and lists himself as an auxiliary member.

“They won’t let me quit,” Phil said. “Threatened to beat me up if I did!”

“Our average length of membership is 20 to 30 years,” said Steve. “Barring bad health or being physically unable.”

Back at the fire scene, the temperature had dropped to 29 degrees, and occasional snow flurries were falling. The wind had also shifted to directly from the west, so protecting the adjacent home was becoming a challenge. Hoses were shifted, and water was poured on the house to keep it cool. Despite that, steam rose from the roof as if there was an internal source of heat. As a precautionary measure, the pumper truck in place to the west was blanketed with a constant spray as well. An adjacent telephone pole heated to the point where it burst into flame, but there were firefighters there to extinguish it immediately.

From 9:00 a.m. until around noon, firefighters had a great opportunity to test their skills and their equipment under the capable tutelage of Mike Peterson, and no one walked away without learning at least a little bit about safe operations during a fire response.

Cromwell Fire and Ambulance Service had a great multi-purpose 50th anniversary celebration, and a property owner was happy to have an old structure demolished without too much fuss.

In the aftermath of the controlled burn, the only physical reminder of the day’s work is a pile of charred wood and a scorched telephone pole. However, when the residents of Cromwell are relaxing at home in the evening, they know they can relax a little more knowing the talents of the Cromwell Fire and Ambulance Service are at their disposal if they need them.

Happy 50th anniversary to the Cromwell Fire and Ambulance Service! Anyone wishing to make a donation or anyone having mementos or historical information about the department can contact the department at their headquarters in town.

This article first appeared in the April 20, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.