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Fire department celebrates centennial

By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

Like most fire departments in history, it took a big blaze to light a fire under the Enumclaw community and get a volunteer company up and rolling. A major mill fire threatened the town in 1902 and sparked the start of a volunteer company in 1903.

This year, the Enumclaw Stars and Stripes Committee is recognizing the fire department for its 100-plus years of service to the community with special recognition at its Fourth of July celebration Sunday in downtown Enumclaw.

"To try to encapsulate 100 years is impossible," current Enumclaw and King County District 28 Fire Chief Joe Kolisch said. "It has been interesting."

When the volunteer department started, it used an unofficial tax levy to raise $26 and bought a hose cart that was pulled through the streets of town by six firefighters.

According to Louise Poppleton's book, "There's Only One Enumclaw," Samuel Lafromboise served as the first chief. Paul Jensen took over as secretary, a post he held for 25 years. Other officers included W. Eckhart, Lou Dibley and John McKinnon.

In its 100-year history, the department has had just five leaders. Lafromboise was chief until 1918. Ole Johnson ran the department from 1921 to 1942. Guy Lafromboise, the son of the first chief, was at the helm from 1942 to 1969. Lou Bixley served as leader for a while, and current chief Kolisch was brought on board in 1979. Henry Holt may also have served as chief for a short time, but there is no record.

From the start, Kolisch said, the department was run by some very smart people.

For example, that early hose cart and the later horse-drawn rig, could be attached to standing water pipes around the city. By 1904, the White River Mill cut into the pump system to boost water pressure.

A bell was also installed downtown to summon volunteers. It was rigged to set off the mill whistle as well. The fire department still has the bell.

The first motorized truck rolled along in 1921. That Model T is still part of the station's collection and will be part of the centennial celebration.

Kolisch owns the American Lafrance Cosmopolitan pumper that was purchased in 1925.

In those early days the fire department only protected the city, but had the OK to go outside its limits to help out.

In Harold Hoyt's 1990 book "The Fire Districts of King County," he mentions how, in 1940, citizens outside the city voted down a proposal for their own fire district. Finally, in 1946, King County 28 was formed. Today, King 28 and Enumclaw are like one department.

Lewis Kranz, who worked under three chiefs until his retirement in 1985, remembers his 28 years with the department fondly.

Kranz, a tire shop owner, like many merchants at the time, was a volunteer. He began in 1956 when volunteers earned about $2 for each call. He remembers sitting on the tailgate of the 1935 Ford as it sped down the road. He said when the siren went off downtown, he would call the telephone operator, tell her he was Fireman 6 and she'd tell him where the fire was.

By the time he left as an assistant chief, volunteers wore pagers and had first-class equipment.

"Enumclaw should be very, very proud of the department," he said. "They have the best equipment today."

Kranz said training has also changed since he was on the department. The biggest mistake, he said, was not allowing the fire training center to be built at Krain. He remembers the big to-do made about it. The center was placed in North Bend.

When Kranz started, the fire station was still at City Hall, in the same building that stands there today, with the other departments.

In 1968, the fire department got its own building at the corner of Stevenson Avenue and Wells Street. Additional bays were added to the building in 1983, and a couple years ago the latest and most recent addition was finished on the back side of the fire house.

Like Kranz, Kolisch said the biggest changes in fire fighting have been in equipment and medical aid.

"I like to compare it to my grandmother's time. She saw everything from the covered wagon to the man on the moon. Another generation will not see what we have seen from 1903 to today," Kolisch said.

The bell or siren that once called volunteers to the station is gone, replaced by new-fangled radios. Trucks now carry infrared binoculars that detect heat and can locate victims inside smoke-filled infernos. Other trucks carry instruments that can cut through the twisted metal of cars.

The same year Kolisch was hired as chief from the Buckley department, 1979, the medic unit was added. In recent years, the medical unit sees nearly 70 percent of all calls. Kolisch said prevention and education have cut actual fire calls.

Today, the fire department is very diversified, offering fire, medical and search-and-rescue services. Offering so many services also makes the department very busy. In 1978, Enumclaw fire responded to 378 calls. Last year that number was 1,800.

Enumclaw/King 28 protects 40,000 people living in an area of 80 square miles with three stations - downtown Enumclaw and two satellite stations in the county, one on the way to Auburn, the other toward Black Diamond.

There are more than 60 volunteer firefighters, both male and female, and four paid firefighters plus Kolisch and a secretary. The city started hiring firefighters full-time in the 1980s when it often became difficult to rally volunteers from their regular jobs during emergencies.

Plus there's an auxiliary of mainly retired volunteers that helps out in emergency situations, for example, when a storm blows through town, or give a hand around the station.

"There have been changes of equipment, changes of ideas, but we still have a little bit of tradition," Kolisch said.

Some of that tradition lies in the father-son and father-daughter teams in the department, providing generations of service to the community. There's the years of camaraderie and teamwork with the local police departments. There's the air of humor among the firefighters that takes the edge off the grizzly and grim that often meets them in a town where everyone knows everyone else.

"I think it's the greatest place to work," Kolisch said.

There are other reminders of the past which aren't expected to change.

"The fire trucks," Kolisch chuckles, "are staying red."

The one thing Kolisch - a collector of fire memorabilia, especially local pieces - hasn't seen in his 25 years, but would like to see, is a fire hall museum so the entire community can enjoy the department's 100 years of rich history.

Brenda Sexton can be reached at

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