Willis Point firefighters Paul McCormick, left, and Kyle Wickes suit up during some confined space training at the fire hall recently. (Steven Heywood/News staff)

Out of the ashes of fire rose the Island’s Willis Point Fire Department

WATCH: Willis Point hall, near Central Saanich, to celebrate 40 years of community service on June 10

Up a long and winding road to a community overlooking portions of the Saanich Inlet, sits a community hall and fire station that can trace its history back to one fateful night in 1976.

In those days, the small rural area was populated by a series of small cabins — one of which had a reputation as the site of questionable trade in vehicle parts. It presence caused a dispute between neighbours and then one night — related to that dispute or not — the cabin burned down. At the time there was no fire protection and the incident sparked action among the residents of Willis Point.

Rising from the ashes of that fire, so to speak, were what was — and still is — known as The Dirty Dozen: Minus One. Eleven people got together in early 1977 and became the community’s volunteer fire fighters, after spending years with an informal fire protection group. Bill Wright is a surviving member of that small group and is still part of today’s Willis Point Volunteer Fire Department — and like its origin story, can tell you many tales of how the department came into its own.

“After that fire, the community got together to see what kind of fire protection it had,” Wright says. “The closest was from Central Saanich or Saanich and those were anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes away. So, we all decided to form a fire department.”

It began with 11 people in February 1977 — with one more individual coming one board in March of that year. Hence the Dirty Dozen: Minus One name of the founding group. It was an informal group, Wright explained, as there was no funding available to start a department at the time.

But there was provincial grant dollars for community and municipal halls. So, they applied and eventually built what Wright calls “a community hall with a garage on the side.” From that garage, they ran their fire hall, with trucks and equipment obtained by that most traditional of methods: beg, borrow and steal.

“We have people here who can really wheel and deal,” Wright laughed. “Central Saanich loves us, as we’ll take all their crap.”

Their first trucks were a 1948 Mercury and a 1952 GMC they got from the Central Saanich fire department. The old GMC, Wright added, began its life as a gravel truck for Butler Brothers Concrete. The equipment they had was rudimentary: long coats, rubber boots and used helmets — much of which dated back to the Second World War. And that, Wright noted, was because a lot of what they received were surplus hoses and other gear from the Navy. He added it’s only been within the last couple years they’ve been able to retire those old hoses and replace them with modern ones.

In the early years, Wright continued, members would themselves repair or upgrade older and donated gear to meet their needs. Of course, as the last 40 years went on, the gear improved, as did the trucks and the hall itself.

Today, the Willis Point Volunteer Fire Department is around 30-members-strong with a current, earthquake-proof fire hall, better turnout gear that meets modern standards, and modern vehicles, capable of serving their unique community. In a place popular with hikers and mountain bikers, the department has a smaller fire truck and a quad off-road vehicle, both better able to reach people in remote places.

Wright said they are exceptionally well-equipped for a relatively small area. Yet, it’s remote, with unique conditions. Firefighter Greg Elvedahl said they have special driver training year-‘round as Willis Point Road is one way, windy and steep. He said there are plans for every driveway in the community and how to navigate them.

The department serves around 150 homes and a population of some 450 people. They train for, and respond to, the exact same types of emergencies as any other fire department — and face the same challenges, such as having enough volunteers to be able to respond to calls during the daytime.

Because of their location and activity, the Willis Point Fire Department is a hub of community activity. At one time, they used to host go-kart races and invited nearby fire departments. And for years, to this day, they put on a Halloween bonfire and host a community Christmas dinner and children’s Christmas party — complete with Santa Claus Parade.

To celebrate that sort of community involvement, the fire department is holding a 40th anniversary event on June 10 at the hall. Starting at 10 a.m. and running until 2 p.m., there will be static displays of new and classic fire trucks from local departments, as well as equipment and vehicles from local Search and Rescue, the RCMP and Central Saanich Police.

Elvedahl said the history of the department will be on display and they plans to hand out long-service awards to firefighters who have been with them 25 or even 30 years. One member, Rick Ross, will receive a special mention for his nearly 50 years of service to the community that stretches to before the department officially existed. They also will hand out their Good Samaritan Award, given to a member to does something noteworthy while off-duty. Wright pointed out Elvedahl won that award last year, for helping save a motorist who has been in an accident.

To find out more about the Willis Point Fire Department and community, visit www.willispoint.ca.

 

Bill Wright points out some of the names of former and current members on one of the department’s wall of fame. (Steven Heywood/News staff)

Members of the Willis Point Fire Department near Central Saanich (and friend, left). (Steven Heywood/News staff)

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