By Ellen Thompson
Van Orsdel United Methodist Church, 1957; Hi-Line Nite Club, 1960; Anderson Grocery, Calahan's Meat Market and Montgomery Ward, 1966; Havre Hotel, 1975; Montana Bar, Townhouse Cafe, Moose Lodge, Film Library, Dungeon Disco and Photo Lab, 1983; UBC, 1987.
These are some of the fires fought by the Havre Fire Department over the last 100 years.
A string of fires that had consumed much of the city in the early 20th century led the Havre City Council to establish the department in December 1905. Since that time, the success of the department has been measured both by the fires its members have fought and those it has prevented.
Each decade since the 1960s, there have been fewer and fewer major fires, Assistant Fire Chief Tim Ranes said.
“The codes changed, that helped a lot,” Ranes said.
The equipment used by the department also has changed. Newspaper clippings from Havre's early fires mention a single hand pump and one stretch of hose for use by citizens who gathered to fight the fires that took most of Havre's original downtown.
A scrapbook at the fire station commemorates the purchase in 1920 ofnew equipment that included a new engine, used for three decades, capable of producing up to four streams of water. According to the story, the equipment was tested at the Milk River, where the engine proved capable of shooting streams more than 150 feet out and more than 80 feet up, enough, the article wrote, to reach the city's highest building, the Masonic Temple Building.
Today the department has four engines and a truck. There are 17 firefighters, fewer than the maximum of about 19 the department once carried.
Retired Chief Mike Badgley recalls a huge difference in training and equipment for firefighters in the 30 years, from 1969 to 1999, that he worked at the department.
“The training went from no training to highly trained in the 30 years I was there,” Badgley said. “My first day at the Fire Department, I was the rural fire guy. ... I didn't even know the area at the time.”
Badgley recalls having to pick up a police officer or a passer-by in order to get directions to the fire or ambulance call he was responding to. In a serious case, he said, he sometimes asked that person to drive the ambulance to the hospital while he was treating the patient.
“Bad stuff happens anyway, but when you're there and don't know what to do, it just makes it worse,” Badgley said. The only medical training he had he received at boot camp after joining the U.S. Marine Corps, he said.
A few years later, emergency medical training was available for the firefighters, and Badgley signed up.
Now it's a requirement to even join the department today, Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said.
Badgley also recalled the old system used to alert firefighters of a fire. A whistle was set up near the water tower southeast of downtown and firefighters carried a card that told them how many whistles corresponded to which neighborhood. If off-duty firefighters heard the signal, they'd show up.
That system was used until the 1970s, Badgley said.
He and his family became accustomed to the interruptions, and he recalls several fires based on what was happening in his family at the time. One fire took him away from his first wedding anniversary, Badgley said. Not long after, his daughter was born in between two fires, giving him just enough time to be there.
One of Badgley's most memorable early fires was one that damaged an apartment and part of the what was then the Elks Lodge.
“I about quit that night,” Badgley said of the fire, which took place in January 1972. It was 20 degrees below zero, and 58 below with windchill, he said.
A photo of the fire in a scrapbook at the Fire Department shows ice crystallizing out of a plume of water and falling to the ground like snow. The fire sent Havre's fire commanders - the chief, assistant chief, captain and two lieutenants - to the hospital because of smoke inhalation, Badgley said.
“They were the smoke eaters. They were very foolish,” Badgley said.
That was the way it was done. It was unofficially frowned upon to use a self-contained breathing apparatus, he said. Those the department did have held oxygen, which is a risk itself.
“If you used one, you were kind of condemned for being a wimp,” Badgley said.
By the 1980s, the equipment had improved and firefighters were required to use the breathing devices.
Through most of the Fire Department's history, community service has been a big tradition.
Retired Chief Norman Maze said the Havre department has, as long as he could recall, raised money to help children with muscular dystrophy.
“They've been involved in that forever,” Maze said. He joined the department in the 1950s and retired in 1982.
In past years, the department helped build a summer camp for children with the disease, and each year conducts Fill the Boot drives where firefighters stop people on the street to raise money for muscular dystrophy.
Displaying the department's trucks and ambulances has proved a reliable way to get people's attention and raise money.
For the past decade, the department has conducted Everybody Loves Firefighters food drives too. Scrapbook photos show several food drives from years past that were not sponsored by the firefighters, but where they kicked in.
Finally, the annual fall harvest celebration, Festival Days, is another tradition. Retired firefighters are always part of the celebration, and it's a time for families to gather together, Sheppard said.
The department retired one tradition, a water fight. In one version, fire hoses would be used by teams on opposing sides to see which could drive a beer keg, suspended on a rope, over to the other team's side. In a slightly safer version, streams of water were used to knock over an object, Badgley said.
Badgley said he thinks maybe people lost interest in the game.
Several firefighters at the fire station this week wondered if it wasn't the city's liability insurance provider that asked the city to reconsider that tradition.