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STORIES OF PORTLAND FIRE

The stories of Portland Fire are endless.  The best we can hope is to capture a few of the great ones.  But so many will remain untold...unless someone tells them.  You may have a great story to share.  If so, contact this web site and we'll see if something can be put together and shared.  

Some stories are about incidents, large and small.  Some are about people.  Still others are about the tools and equipment firefighters have used over the many  decades.  Collectively, they share what Portland Fire has been about since 1853.  

 

Part 1 - Before There Was A Fire Department
 
There is a beginning to Portland Fire's story.  It starts in the early 1850s, before a fire department even existed.  

 

Part 2 - The Volunteer Era 
 
The "Portland Volunteer Fire Department" would exist from 1853 until 1883.  Apparatus, equipment, and fire stations were funded by the city, but firefighters received no pay.  It existed at that time the way many volunteer fire departments continue to exist today.  

 

Part 3 - Horses and Professionalism
 
In 1883, the city of Portland would establish a budget to create a paid fire department.  It would be called the "Portland Paid Fire Department."  The PPFD would serve into the 1900s when civil service and other changes would take place.  It was an era of technological change and significant growth of the city.  

 

Part 4 - Civil Service and the Growth of Portland
 
The advent of civil service and other changes would usher in the era of the "Portland Fire Department" and "Portland Fire Bureau."  The name was not the only change during this era.   

 

Part 5 - The 1980s and Beyond
 
Time continues on into modern day where the line between today and history is foggy at best.  "Portland Fire & Rescue" is now poised to take on significant changes in technology and operations. 

 

A Firefighter Account From Multnomah Engine Company #2

 

If you've ever wondered what it must have been like to be a Portland Firefighter before motorized vehicles...before horse drawn vehicles, back in the early days, this is a must read.  John Cullen, a Multnomah Engine Co. 2 firefighter from 1857 to 1860 shared this story.  

 

Gasoline - The Firefighters

 

This story appeared in the May 1, 1921 edition of the Sunday Oregonian.  Written by Earnest Peterson, it describes the firefighting technology of the day.  

 

The Fire of 1872

 

Portland has experienced many big fires over the decades, but few have outpaced the resources available to fight them.  The fire of 1872 was one of those fires.  It is one of the lesser known of large Portland fires, but significant.  This story was written by Portland Fire retiree Jim Fairchild. 

 

Black Saturday - The Fire of 1873

 

While many thought the fire of 1872 was the worst, a few short months later, the largest fire known to Portland would occur.  It was August 2, 1873, Black Saturday as it would come to be known,  when 22 square blocks of the city of Portland would be destroyed by fire.  Read on for this detailed account of that challenging day. 

 

Fire District #10 - East Multnomah County

 

Virtually every fire department in Oregon had modest beginnings, usually as a volunteer fire department.  Portland Fire began that way and grew as the city grew and other communities/departments were added or annexed by the city.  Examples include Sellwood, Albina, East Portland, and Fire District #10.  Fire District #10 itself grew from numerous volunteer departments to what it became up until 1984.  Here is their story. 

 

Clackamas County Fire District #1

 

In another contractual agreement like the one with Fire District #10, Clackmas County would contact service from Portland Fire.  This would not last long, however.  It would contribute employees and concepts that would far outlast the contract agreement.  Here is their story.  

 

Fire Alarm Telegraph

Alerting firefighters to a fire began with bells and evolved to a sophisticated communication system that exists today.  Read about the evolution of emergency communications in this article.   

 

Fire Prevention In Portland

Fire prevention was not in the orginal architecture of Portland Fire.  In fact, it would take 65 years before Fire Prevention would become a formal part of the department.  Read the story here, and also look to the story of Jay W. Stevens in the "People" page. 

 

Portland Fire Training

 

Training is an inherent part of the job at Portland Fire.  However, it was not always a formal component of the service.  It was not until 1938 that the first training manual was published, and it was a doozy!  Read the story here.     

 

Public Education in Portland 

 

Public Education is a sometimes forgotten discipline in the fire service.  Portland has a short, but proud tradition in community outreach and public education.  It is of particular relevance here since the site host served the majority of his firefighting career doing the challenging work of addressing public knowledge and behavior.  Find the story here. 

 

"The Fire Engine Experience"

 

The story of Public Education in Portland will share an innovative device purpose-built for the Safety Learning Center & Fire Museum.  This was a significant project that is worth sharing as a separate article.  The Fire Engine Experience was chronicled in a trade journal for audio/visual professionals and it sums up the project well.   

The Modernization Program 

 

The "Modernization Program" resulted from a federal grant to upgrade stations and appartus across Portland Fire.  In one grant, it would upgrade over 25% of the apparatus fleet and re-arrange fire station locations to keep up with city growth and evolution.  Read about this unique financial windfall for Portland Fire. 

 

Emergency Medical Vehicles

 

The evolution of emergency medical vehicles and the EMS field in general is very interesting.  Like many things, it started as an idea and evolved into the most significant service compontent of today's fire service.  The story is told around significant EMS apparatus.  

 

The Shirlee Ann Memorial and Trust Fund

 

For firefighters in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, the story of Shirlee Ann Howell is well known.  Her tragic death was the inspiration for life saving efforts that have lived for many years.  Read her story and legacy here. 

 

Stories By Ken Carter

 

Portland Firefighter Ken Carter compiled stories about his career, which began in 1949.  His stories provide great insight into what the job was all about during that era.  

 

Portland's Fire Cisterns

 

Long before fire hydrants could be found across Portland, fire cisterns were the source of firefighting water.  This document shares the origins of the fire cistern in Portland. 

 

Portland Fire Horses

Fire horses in Portland represent one of the most colorful and storied periods in Portland Fire history.  This document includes several perspectives with photos of the actual fire horses.   

 

Life Nets

 

Life Nets were a colorful device used (rarely) by firefighters.  We know that at least one life was saved because it is documented here.  However, many times the outcome may not have been as expected.  Read why.   

 

Multnomah Village Fire Department Story

Portland Fire is made up of many smaller fire departments that were added as the city annexed surrounding areas.  Lowell Swanson compiled this story of Multnomah County Fire District 3 in Multnomah Village.  It is a very detailed account of the establishment and evolution of the fire service in Multnomah.  Lowell is a contributing author to the Multnomah Historical Association.   

 

Sellwood Volunteer Fire Department Story

Sellwood was another Portland area community that utilized their own volunteer fire department before Portland annexations would include them in Portland Fire.  Writer Dana Beck, from Pamplin Media, chronicles the journey of Sellwood from the volunteer era to modern day.  

 

Archie Williams & William Bruen

Archie Williams, Chief Engineer for the Portland Volunteer Fire Department would run up against William "Billy" Bruen in the election of 1873.  This old newspaper story shares the drama of the election how it changed the course of Archie's life.   

 

Portland Toy & Joy Makers

Christmas toy drives may seem like a modern idea, but a Portland Firefighter named Eddie Boatright had the idea in 1914.  It has endured for over 100 years and is alive and well today.  Read about it in this article.    

 

Bargains Galore Fire

On May 23, 1997, a fire broke out in the Bargains Galore warehouse in NE Portland.  It was a multiple alarm fire that created one of the most dramatic rescues ever.  Squad 1's efforts would be documented in an article in Readers Digest in June 1998.  Read about the dramatic rescue here.   

 

1920 June 13 Oregonian Newspaper Article

Enjoy this Oregonian Newspaper article, published on June 13, 1920, sharing recollections from "old timers" about the early days of Portland Fire.  It recounts stories and passages taken from historic documents that bring clarity to many Portland Fire experiences.  Written over a century ago, it speaks to the early days as the "old days."  It is very interesting indeed.     

 

Forest Park Fire History

Forest Park in Portland, Oregon is a beautiful city park.  It is the largest forested park located within the boundaries of a city in the United States.  With that distinction comes some relative dangers, the largest of which is from fire.  This article chronicles the fire of 1952 and some of the steps taken in response.    

 

DC8 Flight 173 Airliner Crash in East Portland​

On December 28, 1978, United Flight 173, a DC8 passenger aircraft, crashed in East Portland.  It carried 185 passengers and crew and, remarkably, only 10 fatalities resulted.  Attached here is an Oregonian article recounting the incident and the findings by the NTSB.  Also included is 45 minutes of audio transmission from the Fire Alarm Dispatch Center.  Fire District 10, which would become part of Portland Fire 5 1/2 years later, led the response.      

 
 

Portland​ Firefighters In World War II

Portland Firefighters have likely served in every war since the department began in 1853.  Military service was not necessarily kept with great accuracy in personnel files.  However, during WWII, there seemed to be a reliability about the notations, including some who were killed in military action.  The attached article shares the names of the known members who lost their lives in WWII.  An additional letter within the article provides insight into those who were deployed.        

Colonel - The Fire Horse

Fire horses have a long, colorful, and storied history with Portland Fire.  Many have been called out by name for their dedicated service.  The article shared here not only recounts the sevice of "Colonel," but it is in the words of a firefighter who drove Colonel for many of his years of service.       

 
 

Portland Fire History Account - 1895

Many accounts of Portland Fire's history have been written over the decades.  This article from the January 1, 1895 Oregonian is one of the oldest to be found.  Because it was written only 42 years after the inception of Portland Fire, it contained a perspective different than others.  Being a newspaper article, some details are not completely accurate, but it remains an excellent piece.       

1913 Steel Bridge Fire

On July 30th, 1913, a fire ignited on the Steel Bridge creating quite a spectacle in downtown Portland.  The newly christened Fireboat David Campbell (the original steam-powered version) responded, but experienced some problems.  Read on to learn what happened and what a bridge fire presented as challenges to Portland Fire.