Jerry Burns remembers the first time the Dawn Township Fire Department was called into action.
Burns had been chosen the chief of the new department and had overseen all the plans for building and buying equipment, getting commitments from his neighbours to serve and then to train them.
Then one day, he and Tom Tyhurst were in the station working. “We looked at each other and said ‘is that really us?’”
The new trucks rolled out of the new building in Rutherford to Lambton County Road One and Marthaville Line to put out a chimney fire.
It would be the first in the 25-year history of the department – a history the community will celebrate Saturday at the fire hall starting 1 pm.
Burns says the idea of a fire department in what was then Dawn started in 1970 but it wasn’t until 1991 that the boots actually hit the ground. Oil Springs had been “doing a fantastic job but they were just located a fair distance away from the extreme points of the municipality,” he says. The Ontario Fire Marshal recommended a department for the community and council agreed.
Dave Williams, the third and current chief, recalls the early days as the department was being formed. The people who committed to being firefighters were going on a bus tour of departments in the area. “Once we were all on the bus Barry McKinnon said ‘Now that you’re on the bus, pick your chief.’ I put up my hand and said ‘I pick Jerry.’ I just respect him as a man and a person and he was well-known in the community.”
The rest of the volunteers agreed and Burns became chief with the blessing of the department and council.
“After that,” Burns says, “most of that (organizational work) fell on the hands of myself…and what turned out to be Tom Tyhurst.
Burns and the firefighters worked to get the design for the hall and the trucks together and oversaw the building of both. Meantime, the Ontario Fire Marshal was working with the group on training. “We had 24 people who are willing to listen to what ever were told,” says Burns. “Other departments had established their own procedures and it was not as easy to convert to new ideas but we did what we were told.”
Burns says all that training served the public well when that first call came in. “I think we did fantastic, probably as well prepared as any fire department in the area because we had received reasonably extensive training from the fire marshal.”
Williams recalls the sense of excitement from that first call. “We were excited,” he says. “And we we’re young and …energetic and we were thinking ‘Yahoo! We’re real firemen!’” But Jerry was kind of the calm voice that kept us together that night.”
Burns remembers that euphoria but also how all the firefighters agreed setting up a Dawn Fire Department had been the right thing.
It’s a feeling Burns and his firefighters would have again in their years of service. “There were kids playing near a bridge in the early spring when the water was quite high. She slipped and fell in the ditch,” he recalls. “There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever…she wouldn’t have been found alive if it wasn’t for the fire department…she suffered permanent damage but she lived.”
And while the firefighters knew the department was important, being called to accidents and emergency was difficult.
Burns recalled an incident in Edys Mills where a man who had “mental challenges” had laid in the middle of Oil Heritage Line and had been struck and killed. The man had been found on the side of the road before and Burns says he knew before he even left his house who it was. “By the time I got there, some of the other guys had attended and I didn’t see him, but it still bothered me a lot….it was something that was preventable.”
Over the years, the tools of the job changed. The second chief, Leonard McMurphy, “brought us into the 20th century” with computer use according to Williams.
Burns says the technology around communication improved tremendously as well.
And he says one of the simplest thing which made a huge difference was the number of farm lots. “The fact that each rural property has a number is humungous and that came about after the fire department was established.”
One thing has not changed, Burns adds, the brotherhood of people who volunteer to fight fires. “There is a lot of respect for one another on the department
that’s not only on this department; that extends to other departments in the area.”
Williams agrees adding there is a special bond in Dawn-Euphemia where some of the people who still fight fires built the infrastructure to do it. “When we started, most of the people were about the same age group and we grew up together.”