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Call 73103 - The Beginning of the Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department

by Kyle Stetler
| March 1, 2023 12:00 AM

In the early days, during the downtown fire of 1912 for example, or the infamous Bigfork Inn fire on January 7, 1937, when it was 20 degrees below zero and all the water froze as neighbors ran their garden hoses to the fire trying to squelch the flames, Bigfork relied on an ad hoc assortment of call when needed volunteers and generally virtuous people to serve as the fire brigade. Perhaps it was that fire in 1937, or just the right group of people at the right time recognizing a community need but, on August 18, 1941, 24 residents officially came together to create the Bigfork Fire Department.

In the event you needed the fire department there was no 911 or centralized dispatch center. Instead, there were five fire phones throughout the town, all with the same number of 73103, that a resident would call and then all the phones would ring at the same time. By the mid-1970s things had become a little more centralized. Bigfork resident Rick Trembath said that when he started with the department in 1976, everyone was still a volunteer “and the Bigfork community called the Bigfork Dam powerhouse where there was always someone on duty – the number was 629 by then – and then the powerhouse operator would set off the firehall siren and then be on the telephone there to let the first responding fireman know what the call was and where to go. Mostly using physical landmarks instead of addresses.” And while responding to fires was the mainstay of the department, the department started responding to medical calls in the late 1970’s when the Bigfork QRU (Quick Response Unit) was formed. But that story is for another day.

The equipment in the beginning was what one could call previously loved. The departments first truck was a 1913 Reo fire engine that had served the Kalispell fire department from 1918 to 1929. The Bigfork volunteers got another eight years of life out of that engine but on the way to a fire call along the east shore of Flathead Lake in August of 1949 the driveshaft dropped out of “Old. No.1” leaving the fire department with no equipment at all. Recognizing the dire situation, however, Manion Motors of Kalispell donated a Diamond T truck that was retrofitted for fire duty to serve as a replacement. Through donations and fundraising a second engine, a 1 1/2-ton GMC truck was added by 1951. The general practice in those days was that the Diamond T had to stay in town while the GMC could respond to more rural calls. When the Diamond T truck arrived, an interesting problem arose. The first fire hall was formerly the Bigfork jail but with some slight modifications had been adapted for the first fire engine, but the new engine didn’t fit. This necessitated one of several modifications and reconstructions to the building that took place prior to the new building Nelson Hall opening in 1981.

Speaking of Nelson Hall, any article on the early days of the Bigfork Fire Department wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the first, and longest serving fire chief, Joe Nelson. In 1945, he agreed to be the fire chief, a position he then held for the next 39 years. His impact was immeasurable, and leadership and dedication helped put the department on solid footing. None more so, in February 1960, when another milestone took place as the department became an official volunteer fire department recognized by the state. Chief Nelson also helped establish a fire district to get tax funding for basic fire services as well as getting a Mutual Aid agreement signed among all the fire departments in the valley. His leadership also helped the department grow. Something that it continues to do today. The fire department today is a mix of roughly 30 paid and volunteer EMT’s and firefighters with multiple pieces of fire apparatus located at three different fire stations. Quite impressive for a little village and a department with such humble beginnings but one nonetheless, that we are all thankful for.

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Bigfork fire department responding to a call in 1948. (Credit – Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department)

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The first fire hall with the “Old No.1 fire engine. (Credit – Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department)

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Bigfork fire department Old No.1 fire engine prior to its demise. (Credit – Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department)

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Bigfork fire department responding to a brush fire. (Credit – Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department)

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Bigfork fire department volunteers getting ready for the Firemen’s Ball. (Credit – Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department)

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The original location of the Bigfork fire hall undergoing one of several re-models. (Credit – Daily Inter Lake)

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Chief Nelson and one of the engines in 1958. (Credit – Daily Inter Lake)