Circa 1914 : Ernest Archibald preempted 160 acres of land at today's Alta Vista neighbourhood. Reportedly, he was Alta Lakes' very first Fire Warden. Unfortunately for Ernest, a "controlled fire burn" he lit got out of control torching a few hundred acres along the railway tracks – he was fired soon after.
To witness Whistler today compared to the little railway siding at Alta Lake of just two or three generations ago is overwhelming.
Long-time locals can still remember epic and oft times "white-knuckled" drives up the '99 long before the 2010 Winter Olympic upgrades.
More than one hundred years ago, hearty individuals and bright-eyed trailblazers left their first tentative marks on our valley. Self-reliance and a healthy dash of ingenuity were required skills for those first European settlers. By definition early Alta Lake residents were truly rough and ready pioneers.
Even with the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in 1914, homesteaders had only themselves and a few far-flung neighbours to secure life's necessities. Prospectors, hermits, loggers, a few subsistence farmers and early fishing lodge entrepreneurs dotted the mostly empty landscape.
Though time marched on outside the valley, through the 1940s Alta Lake remained a remote backwoods, especially in the winter months; the closest doctor was "down the tracks" at Squamish with a trip to the hospital or getting medicine a two-day round trip by train.
By the '30s, Alta Lake's first schoolteacher was hired to teach all eight of the school-age children in the valley. Twenty-three-year-old Margaret Partridge signed on for the annual salary of $750.00 with an isolation bonus of $10.00 per month. Not much money but at the height of the Depression, with thousands out of work and on bread lines, a job was a job.
Two world wars would come and go pulling some of Alta Lake's young men to Europe and beyond — some never to return. Over the years businesses opened and closed. Loggers and their families came and went while ever so slowly the surrounding forest gave way to the saw and the axe. Dreamy-eyed prospectors toiled along the mountain goat and pony trails searching for the "big strike" that was never found.
From that first arrival of the P. G. E. to the early 1960s, the slow pace of life up and down the tracks on Alta Lake's western shores witnessed only creeping change.
After a pedestrian first fifty years the 1960s would prove to be the transitional decade for Alta Lake. This 10 year period would be a part of the biggest leap forward, offering a hint of the potential for the tiny community — from a sleepy, summer alpine retreat to the first inklings of an international resort.
In the late 1950s Dick Fairhurst of Cypress Point Lodge set up the first ski towrope on the hill behind Rainbow Lodge. Using an old V8 Ford engine to power the haul rope, skiers wearing the latest Eaton's Catalogue fashions, including bear trap bindings and heavy lace-up leather boots, raced down the community ski hill. Until then, the only way to ski and explore the surrounding slopes meant the arduous task of skinning and hiking for hours, even days, to the top of Whistler and the towering peaks of the Fitzsimmons Range.
For years, the few "visitors" who found their way up from Vancouver by pack horse or train experienced a pristine Alta Lake. Not surprisingly, word of this alpine paradise eventually began to filter to the outside world. By the 1950s, with more than a half dozen lakefront fishing lodges operating, Alta Lake was said to be the most popular summer destination in Canada after Banff and Lake Louise — all with virtually no car access.
Young explorers bunked down at the famous, but now long-gone lakeside resorts like Rainbow, Hillcrest and Cypress Lodges. As these visiting "city folk" grew in number and as more permanent infrastructures, homes and lumber mills were built, the few permanent locals soon recognized the need for an organized firefighting force to protect the growing community.
Over time lightning fires had been frequent events up and down the valley. Evidence remains today of large forest fires up the Soo and Cheakamus Valleys and along the slopes of Blackcomb, Sproatt and Rainbow mountains.
In addition to the danger of Mother Nature's fury came the growing fire risk provided by more rail traffic, more logging and the smoke billowing lumber mills that lined the tracks to Parkhurst and up to Lost Lake.
To address this risk the far-flung residents of Alta Lake did what people in most small communities do when a problem presents — they called a meeting. The only item on the agenda was "...how do we protect the Alta Lake community from fire?"
From this first coffee clutch of concerned locals there came a determination that an organized, trained and supplied firefighting group was badly needed.
Everyone understood that even a small forest fire could easily grow out of control and wipe out the shoreline community — every house, mill and shack, all in one hot summer's afternoon.
In true pioneer spirit, the residents rolled up their sleeves and took charge of their fate. As often happens, however, when good intentions meet cold reality, the devil was in the details. Who would pay for it? Who would staff it? Who would train it and who would lead it? Though big questions they seemed but minor concerns to the determined citizens.
In the summer of 1962, out of the first tentative discussions a disparate but energized firefighting corps was organized. Technically, this may not have been a "fire department" in the conventional sense. It was, however, a gathering of concerned individuals who, after they identified the fire threat, conspired to achieve the goal of preventing, fighting and stopping fire. To add to the challenge of getting crews up and running, they were 100 per cent reliant upon their own resources and initiative for everything that was needed for this start up venture.
As a momentum was sparked, the pool of potential volunteers was drawn from a very short list of candidates and for many years to come, the volunteer numbers would count but a handful.
Unfortunately, few historical records of these first firefighting efforts remain. We do know that the first crew included Doug Mansell, Dan Noyes, Glen Creelman and Don Gow. The group elected Dick Fairhurst (later a Citizen of the Year honouree) as the first Fire Chief; a position he would hold for more than a decade. These dedicated men, with a wide base of community supporters, were the charter members of what became the long tradition of volunteer firefighting at Alta Lake and Whistler.
It must be remembered that in the early 60s there were probably less than 50 full-timers living at Alta Lake from Function Junction to Parkhurst and up the Soo. Still, this first "band of brothers" quickly became dedicated and earnest volunteer firefighters in the true definition of that word. Even with their limited resources and knowledge, the "boys" (it would be a few years before any women joined the ranks) were as committed and dedicated to their new calling as their equipment, time and varied skill sets allowed.
Like the many that would follow over the next five decades, these volunteers offered their time and best efforts for the benefit of their community. They received no fanfare and zero compensation for their efforts except for an occasional case of "Lucky" or bottle of rye.
Thursday nights were set aside for fire practice with drills held at locations up and down the valley. In those bygone days, setting fire to an abandoned shack or cabin to practice "live" firefighting tactics was commonplace (an option abandoned in 1993). As training progressed under Chief Fairhurst's leadership, this rag-tag group came together developing the skills, knowledge and the ability to safely fight and contain small fires.
Of course even for these pioneer firefighters there were limitations to the loyalty they might offer. Florence Petersen, the first President of the Whistler Museum & Archives Society, and an early Alta Lake Ratepayers Officer, spoke about one part of the group's earliest training regime.
"...As part of a mutually agreed upon condition for attendance on Thursday nights was a distinctly Alta Lake rule. Fire practice could only begin after the National Hockey League game on CBC Radio was over! It seems the Fire Chief was an ardent hockey fan and never missed a radio broadcast of a Maple Leafs or Habs game. The community's safety had to play second fiddle to the national game ...Fire practice would just have to wait until the final buzzer sounded," she recalled.
A substantial first step was the construction of a firefighting/first aid supply shelter on the West Side. Built by Dan Noyes and others in 1963, the eight-foot by eight-foot "shelter" was not really a fire hall at all. Another decade would pass before such a glamorous structure would be built at Mons or an actual fire truck obtained. That first fire department structure was best described, and pictures show, the building being, "...not much more than a shed."
The shelter was built on the grounds of Dick and Kelly Fairhurst's Cypress Lodge (The old Whistler Hostel site). An equipment procurement posse took hold and soon every one began to pitch in to outfit the cache with rudimentary tools. These first appliances included axes, mattocks, water shut-offs, shovels, adaptors, backboards, hoses with repair kits, stretchers, first aid kits and a special "Indian Backpack" — a simple five-gallon water can with spray nozzle attached (still in use today!).
The first major purchase was a portable, "Wajax water pump" and 400 feet of 1 ½ inch firefighting hose. The pump had to be shifted along the lakeshore to the fire location where needed as the arrival of fire hydrants and standpipes were still years away.
The volunteers saw benefit in acquiring equipment that was compatible with the early forest service's gear. Hoses, nozzles and couplings collected were interchangeable with forestry firefighting equipment and put into action to control the many summer bush fires.
Reflecting back on those heady days, Petersen reminisced that in the case of a fire emergency, "...volunteers would make their way down to water's edge, prime the pumps motor, pull the cord and hope like hell the engine would fire up!"
At the time, tragically, but now ironically, the Wajax pump and firefighting volunteers were first called into serious action for a house fire at Petersen's (and her teacher/girlfriend's) cabin, Witsend, in November of 1965. It was a complete loss!
Ever the organizer, Petersen and the Rate Payers Association solicited the princely sum of $15 annually from each property owner for the fire department equipment fund to raise money to finance the effort.
In 1966, the Garabaldi Lift Company had opened Whistler Mountain and broken ground on its Olympic dreams. On that "far side" of Alta Lake, the first ski trails were blazed, chairlifts installed and construction continuing to add to the needed infrastructure. With this activity and the increased construction at Alta Vista, Creekside and the Highlands, the West Side soon became Alta Lake's poor cousin.
The tiny fire shelter first built by Don Noyes in 1963 was needed more desperately on the eastern shore. In 1967 the shelter and all its acquired contents were rafted across the lake. Chief Fairhurst, Doug Mansell and Stefan Ples floated the "Fire Hall" over to Barb and Doug Mansell's property on Archibald Way.
The move proved less than advantageous for Chief Fairhurst. Volunteer Al Niven, now retired in Osoyoos, tells the story of looking across a frozen Alta Lake to see the Chief's house aflame. Together with Doug Mansell, they put some firefighting gear on a sled and raced across the Lake. Despite their hard efforts – a total loss.
Some glimpse into what motivated these early volunteers is offered by past member Rick Valleau. Valleau signed on as a volunteer in 1968 and continues to live in Whistler today. Recently he talked about the motivation for early locals who stepped up to volunteer.
"My uncle Ron was already with the ALVFD during a time when I was in and out of Alta Lake for work and family. When I moved here permanently, it just seemed a natural thing to do – to join the guys in the fire department. Meetings were held at the Cheakamus Inn's Bar and it was easy to turn out and lend a hand," Valleau reminisces.
"It was a very small community back then. We'd play baseball together down at the ball field in Tapley's Farm, fish together and over time our families grew up together. The volunteer fire department was just an extension of the community support that was already in place" Valleau recalled.
Apparently, fire did not respect office or community standing back in the day. Like Fire Chief Fairhurst, Valleau also had his own story of personal loss to fire. His house at Chaplinville (now Alta Lake Station) was destroyed when a fire that began on his neighbour's property (next door to the old school house) jumped to his property, destroying his new Alta Lake home.
According to early department Annual Reports discovered in the Whistler Museum Archives, each firefighter was responsible to "first respond" to the neighbourhood where they lived. In the report for 1970, there were "5 designated zones" across the valley. The Valleau boys together with Ian Douglas and Jim Burgess are recorded as having met the "required" 75 per cent attendance record for their "Alpine Meadows" and "Emerald Estates" response area.
By 1971, response areas had been reconfigured and expanded to include "13 Zones." The growing community was now protected by a larger volunteer contingent, which that year's annual report stated there were "eighteen good men now prepared to respond to emergencies."
Records show responding firefighters included early Alta Lake pioneer Captain Walter Zebrouski for "East of Highway#99" and Captain Buist Clark at "Alta Vista Subdivision," to name just two. Some Zones, like "Ski Boot and White Gold Estates" had "no representation."
Finally, after about 10 years without a true home, the Valleau family logging business donated a surplus building for a fire hall; a place to hang their fire helmets and house the department's first vehicle. That tank-truck was a recycled "milk delivery van" purchased in Vancouver and converted to carry equipment and some water (no fire pump). The "milk truck," as everyone who tells the story calls it, found a home on the Valleau property near today's campground at Mons.
In April 1967 the Ratepayers Association's Don Gow, (canvassing the then 92 parcels and their land owners) petitioned Victoria and the "Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council... for the incorporation of an improvement district under the Water Act and suggest the name of Alta Lake Fire Protection District... for the providing for the purchase, construction, maintenance and operation... for fire protection."
Even back then the wheels of government turned slowly. It took another year and a half to complete the to-ing and fro-ing of signatures, forms, consents and approvals from Alta Lake to Victoria and back again before Alta Lake received its formal fire protection funding formula.
While important, this new source of funding was limited. Into the 1970s, Alta Lake continued to be considered an "unorganized territory" by the province. Volunteers still struggled to access basic firefighting equipment so partial funding was still raised the old-fashioned way — by hard work and community spirit. Money was earned dime-by-dime and dollar-by-dollar from events like the "Ice Break Up" raffle and the "Fireman's Ball," for years the highlight of the Alta Lake social season.
The sprung floors of Rainbow Lodge hosted many memorable and raucous Firefighter Balls over these early years. While dances and raffles would never provide all the funding, these community driven events proved an important part of the fire department's and valley's early history.
With incorporation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975, the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department was supplanted by a municipal force and the slow evolution from a one hundred per cent volunteer force to a "combination fire department" comprised of both career and volunteer firefighters.
While the ALVFD namesake disappeared some 30 plus years ago, the tradition, influence and importance of that organization and its committed volunteers lives on.
From 1962 through to 2013 several hundred volunteers have worn the bunker pants and heavy fire boots of the various namesakes of the Alta Lake and Whistler Volunteer Fire Departments. Committed locals like: Lindsey Wilson, Dennis Beuregard, Gary Raymond, Seppo Makinen, Pierre Trudeau, Dave Cathers, Sheila Kirkwood (B.C.'s first professional female firefighter), Paul Martin, Don Noyes, Rick Valleau and so many others, have served the community from under their firefighting helmets.
Through the decades, local emergencies as varied and surprising as your imagination can fathom have been responded to. Forest fires, logging truck roll-overs, two forced plane landings on Blackcomb Way, gondola and chair lift accidents, and river and ice rescues have called out the volunteers. And there have been the really big fires as well: "The Keg Fire," "the Burgess/McCarthy fire(s)," "Seppo's Staff Housing" and "Seppo's house," "the Mushroom House" and several fires in Emerald referred to collectively as "The Emerald Fire." Each event witnessed acts of selfless bravery and hard effort by volunteers and career firefighters pulled out of their beds or away from their workplaces to lend a hand and save a life.
Volunteers that included loggers, homesteaders, hippies, ski bums, patrollers, lawyers, construction workers, mechanics and others have all played their role in delivering an important part of the fire and life safety response for the valley.
It would take a few years after the initial volunteer efforts began before the paperwork made its way to Victoria and the Alta Lake VFD was fully constituted. Still, with or without a piece of parchment the firefighting pioneers of that bygone era displayed true spirit, commitment and good fellowship in establishing the first firefighting corps at Alta Lake some five decades ago.
It is a storied, unbroken and impressive path from those half dozen, original volunteers to the fire service of 2012. While the firefighting profession has seen great changes in tactics and operations, equipment, training and funding sources the thread of that early dedication and commitment runs straight and true from 1962 to today.
Today in Whistler there is a cadre of professional career firefighters in place and on the job protecting the community 24/7. Significantly, for the community's broader safety, these career firefighters are supported by a core of well-trained and dedicated "paid-on-call" (volunteer) firefighters.
As with their Alta Lake VFD predecessors of a half century ago, today's volunteers continue to offer their time and energy responding to fire, rescue and medical emergencies in all weather, day and night.
Today's "vollies" continue the tradition of selfless community sacrifice and effort, as did their early firefighting forefathers.
The firefighters of 2013 can directly and proudly trace their pedigree back to those visionary volunteers of 1962 and to that tiny fire equipment shelter at that little railway siding on the west side of Alta Lake.
Note from the author: I began this story from an outline provided by Florence Petersen almost two years ago. She provided facts and figures, as well as her clear memories of those early days. Unfortunately I was not able to show her the final draft before her passing in August.
I hope she would have appreciated these ramblings.
The Whistler Museum pulled together some fascinating original documents, which traced the Alta Lake Volunteers Firefighter's early efforts. Please support and visit the Whistler Museum.
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