Milestones: Costly fires forced upgrades

Volunteers from south Bellingham fought fires around 1898.
Volunteers from south Bellingham fought fires around 1898. HERALD PHOTO

Fire protection was an impromptu thing in the early days of settlement around Bellingham Bay. When a fire started, people pitched in to try to put it out.

But that disorganized approach proved no match for the flames that could attack the city's ramshackle wooden buildings with relentless determination.

In 1885, fire broke out on Division Street, then the business center of Whatcom. According to Lillian Roeder Roth's 1926 "History of Whatcom County," residents quickly formed bucket brigades to haul water up from the Whatcom Creek estuary, a tough task made easier by the high tide at the time.

Dynamite was used to clear away buildings in the fire's path to prevent its spread, but more than a dozen buildings were reduced to ashes before the blaze was stopped.

It was the first of many major fires on the waterfront. But it wasn't until 1889 that residents organized the first volunteer fire company on the bay, the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 of New Whatcom. Other companies soon followed.

Prominent citizens sponsored the companies, contributing cash for equipment. Volunteers got paid when they were called to fight a fire.

After the bayside cities consolidated in 1903, Elmer E. Sherwood became the first Bellingham fire chief, although the force was still volunteer. By 1905, Bellingham had a professional department of 12 salaried firefighters under Chief Andrew Land.

But firefighters found themselves overmatched Sept. 30, 1924, when flames engulfed the Bloedel-Donovan box factory near the foot of Cornwall Avenue. An awesome tower of fire greeted Chief Frank Stearns' men after the alarm was turned in by the night watchman shortly after midnight.

The inferno lit up the sky for miles, according to contemporary accounts. Crowds gathered on Sehome Hill to watch the flames consume an estimated 12 million board feet of lumber. Onlookers reported seeing heat from the blaze knock seagulls out of the sky, their wings smoking.

That was the first of three major fires that motivated city officials to upgrade the department: The E.K. Wood Lumber Co. and Puget Sound sawmill fires of 1925 were almost as destructive. That year, voters approved the first of a long series of bond issues to upgrade the department, adding the city's first substation and building a new central station.

Today, the department operates out of six stations, and responded last year to more than 2,000 fire calls and 5,000 medical aid calls.