Blazing the Trail
Photography: Jill Orschel
Scorching temperatures and gusty winds set the scene for Park City Fire District’s groundbreaking ceremony at the entrance to Park Meadows. White hard hats sit atop nine shovels dug into the earth. Notable Parkites including Mayor Dana Williams, County Commissioner Sally Elliott, and Fire Chief Kelly Gee are present, but it’s Mel Fletcher, describing himself as “just a fireman in Park City,” who makes the first turn of the shovel.
A volunteer firefighter in Park City for the last 55 years, Fletcher attended the groundbreaking for the new fire station in uniform. His short-sleeved khaki shirt adorned with Park City Fire District’s (PCFD) red and gold arm patch from 1977 still fit him perfectly. His wife Peggy pointed to his honorary 50-year pin. While growing up in Park City, Fletcher’s father (Axel Roy Fletcher) was not a firefighter. “He was too busy sign painting and paper hanging,” says Fletcher. But Fletcher’s “granddad,” Henry Wiest, a local barber living in Swede Alley, fought Park City’s Great Fire in 1898. Fletcher explains that back then everyone in town was a volunteer firefighter — no one was paid.
He and his older brother Marion fought too many fires to count. “Anytime there was a fire, we were there,” says Fletcher. Major fires include the acetylene tank explosion that killed well-known Parkite Robert Burns, Sr. in 1981, the Park City Depot fire caused by arson in 1985, and the Deer Valley house blaze in the 1950s. Fletcher recounts that story: “When we got the call, we were at the Elks Lodge having an officer installation ceremony, so we were dressed in tuxedos. We had to go straight to the fire. A lady saw us fighting the fire and said, ‘My, they wear nice uniforms!’”
Jim Santy, Sr., a volunteer firefighter for 25 years, fought fires with Fletcher. Both credit Park City’s successful firefighting to the “10 o’clock whistle,” which was once also used as the fire alarm. Santy’s wife Carol was a switchboard operator in 1952 at the telephone company (which was housed in the building that is now the Purple Sage Restaurant on Main Street). When she got the call about a fire, it was her job to sound the alarm. She says, “The whistle went off two times, and if it was a terrible fire, there would be another round.” No surprise that she did her job well — her father, William J. Berry, was the fire chief for nearly 30 years, and her grandfather started Park City’s first fire department in 1884 when the city incorporated.
Switchboard alerts ended in 1964 when phones became direct dial, but a section of the historic switchboard remains at the Park City Museum. When radios were installed in police cars and fire engines, all the dispatching was done from the C’est Bon Hotel on Empire Avenue. Santy jokes, “If all the crooks had stayed at the C’est Bon, they’d have known where all the police and firefighters in town were.” Ultimately, the county intervened and gave firefighters monitors to get calls at home. Today, according to Captain Doug Burns, who became a volunteer in 1978, firefighters have pagers and use the Internet for communications.
Women also served as volunteer firefighters in Park City’s early mining days. In the early 1980s, the PCFD put out a specific call for women volunteers. As one of five female volunteers, schoolteacher Aggie Johanson says, “We got all fired up!” Weeks later, the women discovered that the District actually wanted volunteers who were home and available to fight fires during the day; but these women had day jobs. Still, Johanson stayed with the PCFD for two years working out of the Summit Park Fire Station. She handled communications and went to “lots of fires” along Interstate 80 and in Summit Park. This heavily wooded area fueled fear of forest fires. Johanson recalls once rushing to a house engulfed in flames. As firefighters dragged out the hoses, the homeowner yelled, “No, don’t put it out. I want the insurance!” Johanson reminisces about how laid back Park City was in the ’80s, adding, “[So} we worked to protect the land and houses around it.”
Gear was another hot issue for women volunteers in the 1980s. “When I joined the force, I had to fight fires wearing the smallest men’s rubber boots, which were still too big,” recounts Johanson. Thanks mostly to Assistant Fire Chief Santy, women finally got their own “turnout gear” to fight fires. The Coalition Building fire on July 20, 1982 still sears Johanson’s memory as the worst. “We all fought the Coalition Building on Park Avenue, and we all cried when it burned down.” One of Park City’s historic gems, the Silver King Coalition Terminal was built between 1897 and 1901. The tall, timber-frame building was so admired by locals that it became Park City Ski Resort’s logo and a town icon until its sad demise in this fire.
Today, the PCFD has no volunteers — only a fully paid staff. According to Fire Protection Inspector John Turcsanski (“Turk”), that means, “Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, firefighters are on duty.” Women still fight fires for the PCFD, whose area of responsibility stretches from Deer Valley to I-80 and covers 110 square miles. And Mel Fletcher, as Park City’s most venerated volunteer firefighter, is delighted to have the new fire station just a block from his house.
Bitsy Beall is a career educator, freelance writer, and 30-year Park City resident.