Everett Kuhn, who died last week at 90, was one of the Nelson fire department’s oldest former members, having fought fires here in the 1940s and early ‘50s.
“I hired on at $147 a month and one uniform,” he recalled in an interview just a few weeks before his passing. “We had no volunteers at that time. On the weekends we slept at the fire hall. The bell went, you were down the pole and gone.”
Some of the things they did would give a WorkSafe inspector a heart attack today. “We rode on the back of the truck and when we went by the hydrant the guy was supposed to hook up to, they slowed down to give him a chance to get off and away we went again. We never stopped.”
Their safety equipment was a far cry from today’s, Kuhn said, but then again, when they entered a burning building “there weren’t all the chemicals and plastic junk around.”
Back then, hoses were still hung in the tower to dry and had to be pulled up by hand. Firemen were also responsible for painting hydrants and maintaining alarm boxes. Occasionally, the chief sprung a pop quiz and they had to name every hydrant and box in town.
Kuhn’s biggest fire and finest hour came on November 23, 1949, when the Johnstone block on Baker Street (the present site of BCAA) burned.
According to the Nelson Daily News, as chief Gordon McDonald and assistant chief Reg Bush entered, Kuhn fed them hose, but feeling no pull on the line for a while, he went in to see if they needed help. He found Bush lying unconscious on the floor.
“The chief had gone in ahead and was unaware his aide was in trouble,” the newspaper reported. “Mr. Kuhn dragged the firefighter to the street where he was revived by the inhalator, then sent home to rest.”
“That was probably the worst,” Kuhn remembered. “It started down in the old Burns block. They had an elevator there, and there’s a tunnel that runs over to BCAA. [The fire] went down that tunnel and into each different store.”
Seven stores and two apartments were damaged, but the building was repaired — only to burn again in 1976.
Kuhn’s days with the fire department ended ingloriously in 1951, as the entire staff quit in a dispute with the chief, who wanted to reduce the paid ranks and set up a partial volunteer department. City council accepted the resignations, but faced heat from citizens, who called for the firefighters’ reinstatement and the chief’s dismissal. Just as the case was headed to arbitration, the resignations were withdrawn — but it was too late. The gamble backfired.
Afterward, Kuhn worked for the CPR and ran a tire shop. But the night the Strathcona Hotel burned in 1955, he returned to action, helping apply artificial respiration when volunteer firefighter Jim Peck was overcome by smoke.
Kuhn was born in Irricana, Alberta and moved to Nelson in 1935, where he played hockey and lacrosse. A life member of Granite Pointe golf course, he also bowled, curled, and square danced. He was Nelson’s Citizen of the Year in 1977 and a longtime member of the Royal Canadian Legion and Kiwanis Club.
Kuhn was predeceased by his wife and a son and is survived by another son, daughter-in-law, three grandsons, four great granddaughters, a brother, and three half-siblings. A celebration of life will be held in early July.