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Burning desire

Author releases portrait of a century of local emergency response
by: SUBMITTED PHOTO, West Linn Fire Department firefighters from Engine Co. 2, circa 1945. In 1932, the department purchased a 1929 Model AA flatbed truck for $175, converting it for use as an engine. Later, in 1967, West Linn would make a large step forward, purchasing three American LaFrance engines and retiring the Model AA.

The story of West Linn's firefighting past starts with humble beginnings.

When the city's first hose companies were established in 1915, they were little more than utility sheds with sawdust-stuffed walls or bunkers dug into the dirt. When fires broke out, hoses, hydrant wrenches and nozzles were loaded onto hand-drawn carts and physically pulled wherever they were needed - an effort made even more challenging by West Linn's steep hills.

The West Linn Fire Department continued to grow in the decades to come before its annexation into the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue district in 2004. And, it's this never-say-die spirit that local author Ray Pitz has captured in his book, 'Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue' - a portrait of a century of emergency response in and around Beaverton, Washington County and the surrounding communities - including West Linn.

Published by Arcadia Publishing, the book tells the tale of nine fire departments that eventually merged as one through hundreds of riveting photos and detailed captions, rife with historical perspective and bracing anecdotes from those in the trenches.

Pitz, 51, is editor of the Sherwood Gazette and a 23-year veteran of Community Newspapers, having served as a reporter for the West Linn Tidings from 1993 to 1998 and as its editor from 2000 to 2005. He said the book is an outgrowth of his years covering the fire district, combined with a longtime interest in local history. Like many American males, of course, his fascination with firefighting goes back to his formative years.

'I've always been fascinated with firefighters, ever since I was a kid,' Pitz said. 'There are a lot of kids like that, who want to grow up to be firefighters and admire the work they do. It's a tough job.'

Pitz said he also gained some firsthand fire training experience when the chief of the former West Linn Fire Department allowed him to enter a burning house in full firefighting gear and work beside the firefighters.

'That was a rush because I saw what I thought was water coming down from the kitchen ceiling. It turned out to be a plastic fluorescent light shade that liquefied and splashed onto the floor in a molten mass,' he said.

Pitz had enjoyed other works from Arcadia's 'Made in the USA' series and said he felt the long, storied history of what became TVF and R would fit the format well.

'I've always been a big history buff,' he said. 'A couple years ago I thought about, if I put something together, what would be interesting if I focused on something local or regional? I thought of the fire district. I'd seen other Arcadia books, which are largely photos, and thought that would be the best way to do it.'

Submitting a proposal in the summer of 2010, Pitz signed a contract in October and faced a one-year deadline to track down photos and interview firefighters from the three former districts - Washington County Fire District No. 1, Tualatin Rural Fire Protection District and the Beaverton Fire Department - that merged in 1989 as TVF and R, as well as information from the former West Linn Fire Department.

While the photo-heavy publication easily absorbed the area's history, pulling it all together was not as simple as it may seem.

'Each one of those captions took a lot of legwork - talking to a live person, library research, slogging through reels of microfilm - to capture what happened in some specific fire or incident,' Pitz said. 'I probably went through 1,000 photos to come up with 200 plus. I wanted to get the best photos I could.'

Public archives, such as the Beaverton City Library, as did TVF and R's own archives, proved invaluable, but personal collections provided Pitz many missing links.

Photos taken by Ernie Metcalfe, who retired after 40 years with the Beaverton Fire Department, on what Pitz called Metcalfe's 'trusty Minolta' 35-millimeter camera, provided a gold mine of striking shots from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Pitz is particularly fond of Metcalfe's photo of a fire engine zooming up the now heavily congested Tualatin Valley Highway at 170th Avenue in Aloha in 1952, 'with not a building on either side of the roadway.'

'Ernie is probably the oldest living member of the fire department,' Pitz said of the 88-year-old. 'He luckily had shot photos since he started in 1948. He gave me his color slides.'

Pitz also plundered the archives of Harvey Thomas, the former staff photographer of Washington County Fire District No. 1. Thomas' memorable images include shots of a single-engine Cessna 150 plane that in December 1979 clipped the roof of a vacant two-story house on Sumac Lane.

The mangled aircraft lies in the yard after it failed to reach Hillsboro Airport. Two bystanders pulled from the wreckage the 44-year-old pilot, who was treated for injuries at a local hospital.

One of the more unusual mishaps involved a hot-air balloon that got stuck on a light pole near the junction of highways 26 and 217 in April 1986.

'The ladder truck was 5 feet too short and couldn't reach the basket,' Pitz explained.

Fortunately, members of the 304th Air Rescue Squadron - after spending four hours constructing a road of gravel and plywood to reach the site - were able to reach the balloonists.

A more recent photo shows a 200-pound bear bounding through the grounds of Tualatin Elementary School in June 2001. The TVF and R Technical Rescue Team used a makeshift harness to remove the bear after he was tranquilized by two darts.

Through the course of his project, Pitz said he marveled at the mettle and determination of local firefighters, many of whom in the early days risked their lives for no pay as volunteers.

Images of West Linn's own firefighting past show a strong history of volunteerism - from those at the Bolton Station to those at the all-volunteer Robinwood Fire Department, established in 1960 before the neighborhood was annexed into the city of West Linn in 1969.

Another photo shows Glen 'Windy' Wenzinger and Sparky the Fire Dog in a vintage engine he refurbished and restored. The vehicle - a 1929 Model AA flatbed truck - was purchased by the city in 1932 for $175 dollars and retrofitted to fight fires. The Crown Zellerbach paper mill donated a welding unit to help convert the truck, as well as a driver to go with it.

Fifty years later, in 1983, the Model AA proved it could still pass muster when Wenzinger and fellow firefighter Harland Geigle saw a pickup truck on fire on a trip to downtown Portland. Grabbing the portable extinguisher mounted on the side of the engine, the pair put out the fire even before the Portland Fire Bureau arrived with an aerial truck.

'Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue' is available at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books and at selected Walgreen's stores, including the one located at 17850 Lower Boones Ferry Road in Lake Oswego.

Pitz will be holding a book signing at the Beaverton City Library on Thursday, July 12, at 6:30 p.m. and said he is in the process of planning a similar event at West Linn Public Library in the near future.