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Omak Fire Department turns 100

Open house planned April 19; people can meet volunteer fire crew

— The Fire Department will celebrate its centennial with an open house April 19.

The event runs from noon to 4 p.m. at the fire hall, 16 N. Ash St. Visitors will be able to meet firefighters and see equipment, Chief Kevin Bowling said.

The department’s beginning came in fits and starts.

In the community’s earliest days, dealing with structure fires was largely a reactive response, with neighbors and passers-by responding with buckets and shovels, according to an account in the Fall 2011 issue of the Okanogan County Historical Society’s Heritage. Bucket brigades, pulling water from the Okanogan River, were employed.

In 1910, a year before the city incorporated, Chronicle Publisher C.P. Scates called for a fire protection organization and the need for a water system.

That same year, the Omak Commercial Club decided to buy a bell to alert the community to night-time fires.

A deveoper, E.B. Cox, offered to build a water system. The system served domestic needs but proved inadequate for fire protection.

Two years later, in May 1912, a huge downtown fire spurred a new round of efforts. Residents met and recommended formation of a volunteer fire department and that the City Council buy hose and hydrants.

An alert employee averted loss of the post office when a coal oil lantern ignited a curtain. With a couple weeks, the council sent one of its members to Conconully to check out that town’s chemical wagon.

“They recognized the need,” Bowling said. “There was widespread use of kerosene, candles and so on.”

The city constructed another water system, with water pumped from the river to a reservoir above the Omak Hotel, which now is a private residence and still stands at the corner of East Bartlett Avenue and North Juniper Street. In a test of the new system, hotel owner Barton Robinson was able to send a heavy stream of water over the building, the Heritage story said.

The system failed later that year, and a new store burned to the ground. Improvements were made.

On April 20, 1914, The Chronicle reported work had started on a fire station. Equipment consisted of a hose cart, 700 feet of line and a set of ladders. That building sat close to the river, behind what later became Zitting’s store and, still later, McNeil Floor Covering on East Apple Avenue.

The department was organized that May, with A.M. McCaskill as president, F.H. Kern as vice president and William Featherly as assistant chief. The rolls included 26 members.

By 1920, an addition was made to the fire hall to provide sleeping quarters for two men. A telephone was available.

Five years later, the city purchased its first motorized fire truck, a 1918 GMC. The truck, purchased from Newport, has been restored and is displayed in the Okanogan Fire Hall Museum adjacent to the Okanogan County Historical Society Museum at 1410 N. Second Ave.

It’s pulled out every year for an appearance in the Omak Stampede parade.

A new truck was added in 1929. The American LaFrance truck could pump 500 gallons of water per minute.

The department moved in 1931 into the new city hall at the corner of Central Avenue and North Ash Street. That building was razed a few years ago and a new city hall was built.

In the mid-1970s, the department moved one door to the north into the current building, which also houses the police department.

The current department has 32 firefighters, including Bowling. Among the ranks are two Omak High School students, Thomas McNulty and Dawson Sachse.

Bowling said the high school program is valuable, even though the teens can’t drive the trucks, enter burning buildings or fight fire above or below ground level.

Two former high school firefighters, Eric Wood and Todd Pyper, now are paid firefighters with other departments in the state.

Bowling, who’s been with the department for 36 years including the last 17 as chief, said he’s seen firefighting techniques and equipment change and improve over the years.

“It makes us more efficient and effective,” he said.

For example, the department previously used negative pressure fans to draw smoke out of a building. Now positive pressure fans blow fresh air, which clears the air for firefighters and anyone else still in the building.

“It’s so much more effective,” Bowling said.

He said his biggest fire as chief was the 2006 blaze that caused heavy damage to the Colville Indian Plywood and Veneer mill, now rebuilt, leased out by the tribe and renamed Omak Wood Products.

While the department responds to structure fires, it also gets called to all sorts of emergencies, including vehicle crashes, first aid calls, water leaks, hazardous materials spills, high-angle rescues and wild land fires.

“We have to be trained in all aspects,” he said.

Firefighters attend weekly training sessions.

Although they are paid minimum wage for training and calls within the city, “they mainly do it to serve their community. It certainly isn’t for the pay,” Bowling said.

The department often provides mutual aid to other departments, primarily Okanogan and Malott, and its firefighters also make up the Omak station crew for Fire District No. 3. The district encompasses the rural area around Omak and Okanogan, plus the Malott area.

Bowling said the crew has been all over the county on fires, and once sent a crew - but no equipment - to the Tri-Cities for a state mobilization fire.

“Whenever there are big fires, it’s often (wild land) fire season here, too,” he said. “We don’t want to let or resources go” too far from town.

In addition to city funds, the department is supported by an association that raises money for things the city can’t afford or can’t legally supply. The association supports the annual firefighters’ banquet, has purchased bike helmets and smoke alarms, donates to the Northwest Burn Foundation, and has purchased a thermal imaging camera and portable defibrillator.

Its only fundraiser is an ice cream booth at the county fair.

This year, the city is replacing the 14-year-old chief’s vehicle, a Chevy Suburban, with a pickup truck. The SUV has more than 100,000 miles on it.

Bowling is the city’s third paid chief. Hugh Miller was the first, starting in 1961, followed by Bowling’s father, Cal Bowling, in 1974. Kevin Bowling took the helm in 1997, after his father retired.

A complete list of chiefs hasn’t been compiled. Bowling said C.P. Larson was a chief, and Frank Wilcox served just before Miller.

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