Blooming Prairie Fire Department celebrates centennial

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 12, 2000

BLOOMING PRAIRIE – Not only is October Fire Prevention Month, it is also Fire History Month in Blooming Prairie.

Thursday, October 12, 2000

BLOOMING PRAIRIE – Not only is October Fire Prevention Month, it is also Fire History Month in Blooming Prairie.

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On Saturday, the Blooming Prairie Fire Department will celebrate its centennial.

There will be firefighting demonstrations, rides on a fire truck for children, prize drawings and food and fun for everyone.

The open house celebration takes place 2-5 p.m. Saturday in the fire department headquarters in the Blooming Prairie City Center, 138 Highway Avenue (U.S. Highway 218).

What does the centennial celebration mean?

"It means that over 100 years there has been an awful lot of dedication to fire safety in this community," said Dennis Heimerman, a former fire chief.

"We’ve had men who were dedicated and who wanted to do the job. The same applies to our ambulance service and Police Department, but dedication was never in doubt in the Fire Department as far as I’m concerned," said another former fire chief, Kenneth Vermilyea.

"That’s true today," added Fire Chief Kurt Underwood. "We average 15 people a call and that’s a great average for a community this size with the district we have to cover."

While the department hones its fire suppression skills with regular training sessions, it has joined the ranks of other departments who tout the importance of fire safety.

Too many firefighters have waded into hostile situations, where fire emergencies have consumed not only buildings and property, but also lives.

Prevention is the key to firefighting today, they say.

The department maintains an aggressive program of fire safety in local schools, checks every major business or multi-family dwelling annually, encourages the use of preplan in residential and commercial/industrial facilities and pushes for working smoke detectors in every home.

Ironically, the department’s hallowed history book of minutes of early meetings a century ago and other important papers and pictures is not available: it was lost in a fire.

Today, housed in a state-of-the-art Blooming Prairie City Center headquarters, that is unthinkable.

No longer is "saving the foundation" the anthem sung of modern firefighters. Preventing a blaze from happening is.

The smoke-eaters

Fire Chief Kurt Underwood, a native of Blooming Prairie, is the first in his family to become a "smoke-eater."

He works as a maintenance mechanic at Atofina in Blooming Prairie and has been employed there for 16 years.

His wife, Terri, works at Sterling State Bank of Austin. They have two children, Shelby, 13, and Logan, 9.

"I just wanted to be a firefighter," he said. "I knew some of the guys in the department and wanted to be a part of what they did."

He joined the department nine years ago, spent five years as training officer and was elected first assistant fire chief. In January 2000, he was elected fire chief.

Presently, the department has 27 firefighters and 30 is the department’s maximum.

The firefighters have two pumpers, including a 1998 model purchased new after a successful community fund-drive, plus three water trucks. A new water truck will replace a 1968 model sometime later this month.

In addition, there are three grass-fighting units and a rescue vehicle.

Also, the department still maintains its very first fire truck, a 1924 International model pumper, that is a popular unit in parades.

Nine different townships help fund the department, including the purchases of new equipment and turnout gear as well as the city of Blooming Prairie.

"We’re really unique, because of where we’re located in a spot where four different counties connect," said Underwood.

Those four counties are Mower, Steele, Freeborn and Dodge and after adding six additional square miles this year, including the Litomysl area, the volunteers cover a fire district of 216 square miles.

Kevin Christianson is the first assistant fire chief.

Kenny Vermilyea, fire chief from 1991-1996 and Dennis Heimerman, fire chief from 1996-2000 remain in the department as firefighters.

The volunteers range in age from 26 to 52.

All are males, but Underwood said among the candidates for the vacancies in the department are females.

Admitting females to the ranks of a formerly all-male public service agency is only one sign that times have changed in 100 years of firefighting.

Education is key

"It’s all about awareness and education," said Heimerman. "The more we can do to educate people about the importance of fire safety the safer everyone will be," said Vermilyea. "We need that awareness and distributing stickers and pamphlets to children is where it begins."

"I think children today are more knowledgeable and aware of the importance of fire safety than ever before," said Underwood.

The fire chief’s son, Logan, 9 and a fourth grader at Blooming Prairie Elementary School, is one of those beneficiaries of fire safety information.

"I learned about it at school and at home and I think other kids should learn about it, too," he said.

Legends live on

On Saturday, the department’s spacious headquarters, designed in part with the input of the department’s building committee representatives Dean Christianson and Harris Peterson, will blend the old with the new as a centennial of fire safety is observed.

Tragically, one of the department’s "legends," Axel Hansen, a 40 year veteran died recently.

But another still lives and will be able to spin tales of bygone days: Don Peterson, a 41 year veteran of the department.

Another generation of firefighters can learn from a veteran such as Peterson, just as he learned form the veterans who came before him.

That teamwork always goes a long way is one of those lessons and so is to appreciate the support of the community and fire district you serve.

Current fire chief Underwood understands how important the latter is.

"I want to express the department’s appreciation to the city and the townships in our fire district for their support. We appreciate it," said Underwood.

"Also, I want to thank all of the employers, who allow our firefighters to leave work to help the community. We appreciate that, also," he said.

On Saturday, the community will have the opportunity to show the Blooming Prairie Fire Department how much it appreciates a century of service.