After 42 years as a volunteer firefighter, Hans Cunningham’s passion for the Regional District of Central Kootenay’s fire service still burns fiercely.
The Ymir resident was honoured by the RDCK Thursday for his volunteerism, which distinguishes him as the longest serving firefighter in the history of the regional district.
“Hans’ dedication to the fire service is simply outstanding,” says regional fire chief Terry Swan, who presented a long-service award to Cunningham at the RDCK board meeting. “He has earned the respect of firefighters wherever he travels.”
“I guess I’ve just always been community minded,” says Cunningham, who in addition to his firefighting duties, serves as Regional director for electoral area G (a position he has held since 1986). Cunningham is the also the recipient of three Governor General’s exemplary service medals for his contribution to the Ymir fire department.
A Fiery Genesis
Cunningham’s name is synonymous with the Ymir department, which he helped form in 1969. The community created the department after two homes burned down in November 1968.
“Everyone had been in the bar when the first fire broke out,” recalls Cunningham. “The town rallied but the water standpipe was frozen and then someone drove over the fire hose and split it,” he says.
Despite those setbacks, the citizens managed to save the contents of an adjacent home before it too succumbed to the flames.
“We stripped the inside of that house,” says Cunningham, emphasizing that even the kitchen appliances were hauled onto the front lawn.
The town realized it needed the training, equipment and organization that a fire department could provide.
Ymir hauled in the old fire hall from Salmo and purchased a 1942 Ford truck for $2,000 with financing from the RDCK.
“The top speed on that thing was 30 miles per hour and it carried 300 gallons,” says Cunningham. “It had been used in World War II as a crash truck.”
The first meetings of the Ymir fire department were held on the back bumper of that truck as the newly minted firefighters forged their team. They received formal training from the fire marshall in late 1970.
“Back then it was ‘put the wet stuff on the red stuff’,” reveals Cunningham. “Those were the days before self-contained breathing apparatus; you just kept low to the floor.”
It wasn’t long after that the new department fought its first blaze when kids torched an abandoned building on Halloween. It wasn’t able to save that structure but was successful when a chimney fire broke out in a resident’s home and rapidly spread through the house.
That triumph would be the first of many successful saves but Cunningham’s favourite story is when the Ymir Hotel caught fire in 1973.
“Black smoke was billowing out of all the windows and flames were racing across the dining room ceiling,” describes Cunningham. The firefighters broke through a kitchen window and used a fog nozzle to extinguish the fire.
“The hotel owner was so grateful he opened up the bar and served us drinks,” chuckles Cunningham.
The department’s actions that night saved the historic structure, which was built in 1896 and is still open to the public.
The Ymir department has experienced its share of losses, both structural and human. Cunningham doesn’t like to talk about those tragedies, which leave a long and lasting impression on both the man and the community.
Boy on Fire
When Hans Cunningham is asked where he developed his interest in firefighting, he pauses for a moment and then glances down at his left leg. A large puckered red scar snakes up from beneath his tennis sock.
Cunningham was five when he caught on fire. He had been reading on the family lawn when he fell asleep.
He awoke to find his pant leg ablaze. A neighbour had been burning leaves when the flames got away from him.
The terrified Cunningham leapt up and ran to his house, the flames now licking at his chin. The neighbour caught up with him and slapped out the fire, saving the boy’s life.
That experience ignited something more in the boy: “I developed an awareness of fire and the need to control it.”
Of the 42 years Cunningham has served on the Ymir fire department, 33 were as chief.
Cunningham resigned from the department in 2009 when the provincial government ruled that volunteer firefighters were local government employees. As a regional district director, Cunningham was not able to serve in both positions. However, he returned to firefighting when the Province later changed its ruling.
“I’m extremely proud of how far we’ve come as a department,” beams Cunningham. “We even started a women’s fire department in 1970 which later amalgamated with the men’s.”
Cunningham is most proud of his fellow firefighters. “These people are dedicated to our community— they give up time out of their lives every week to ensure the safety of their neighbours.”
The strength of the department depends on its volunteers and that’s the biggest challenge facing this department: “It’s harder to get them,” laments Cunningham.
“The fire department is the social centre of a small community,” he asserts. “The fire marshall once told me: ‘you don’t care why someone joins a fire department — you train them, give them the equipment and put them into action.’”
That training and equipment costs money; financial pressures are a constant and mounting stressor on this and any fire department.
“Today’s firefighters have a more dangerous job,” adds Cunningham, explaining that construction materials and methods have changed the face of firefighting.
Cunningham doesn’t plan on hanging up his hat, though.
“I can no longer carry a 300-pound person on my back,” he declares, “but I can still operate pumps, control traffic, and do whatever else I can during an emergency.”
He dispels the myth of the firefighter only handling a hose or entering a burning building. “There are a lot of other duties that need to be done.” And Cunningham keeps on doing them.
— Anitra Winje