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Another chapter has been written in the story of the close relationship between a Sarnia family and the city’s firefighters.
Copies of writer Phil Egan’s book, Walking Through Fire: The History of Sarnia’s Bravest, were expected to arrive this week from the printer, in time for a book-signing event at the East Street Fire Hall on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“It was 21 long months of work researching and writing,” Egan said about his history of the 177-year-old Sarnia fire service, published by the Sarnia Historical Society.
“I am really happy with it,” Egan added.
“I had a fantastic helper with this one.”
Egan isn’t able to use microfilm readers because of a visual impairment, so he put out a call for help researching the book and retired firefighter Kevin McHarg volunteered.
“It’s a much better book because of Kevin,” Egan said.
Egan said his family has had an association with the city’s fire service since his sister Francis Egan was killed in a house fire in 1985.
“She was only 24 and she had just moved into her own apartment” in a building without smoke detectors, Egan said.
Following her death, Egan said his father called members of the family together and asked them to do something in her name to support fire prevention.
“We mounted a smoke alarm drive in the south end of the city,” handing out 2,200 copies of an information brochure about the need for smoke detectors, and helped distribute 200 free smoke detectors, Egan said.
“And then, we campaigned for a smoke alarm bylaw here in Sarnia, which we were able to get enacted by the end of the year,” he added.
“This was 10 years before similar legislation came into being in Ontario.”
A few years later, one of Egan’s brothers saw a story in an Ottawa newspaper about a seven-year-old boy who rescued his one-year-old sister from a house fire, using what he learned from firefighters who visited his school.
Egan said the family arranged for that Ottawa program to be introduced in Sarnia with demonstrations at two city schools.
In 1989, after three children died in a city fire, The Observer campaigned for the Get Out Alive program to be used regularly in local schools. It soon was and “it’s still in place today,” Egan said.
After Egan joined the historical society, its president called for members to take on a project, and a book telling the story of the city’s fire service seemed like a logical one for the writer.
Egan said he learned a great deal while writing the book, including the fact Sarnia would have burned to the ground in 1860s without the help of Port Huron firefighters.
“Time and time again the Port Huron firefighters came to the rescue of Sarnia,” he said.
The Michigan city was much larger than Sarnia at the time, and its fire brigades would load steam engines on ferries to cross the St. Clair River to fight fires they saw burning in the neighbouring waterfront community.
It was the beginning of a mutual aid tradition that continues today.
“One of the first Sarnia fire companies fought its first fire in Port Huron,” Egan said.
In the era of wooden houses and oil lamps, fire was a constant hazard.
“These communities grew up having to rely on each other to survive,” Egan said.
During Sarnia’s event at the East Street fire hall, Egan plans to present copies of his book to fire officials from both Sarnia and Point Edward.
Sarnia Fire Rescue will also use the event to introduce its new inflatable fire safety education house to the public.
Egan said another discovery he made was that on the same night of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, the entire Midwest was going through a drought and there were many large fires as heavy winds blew through the region.
“They describe that as the night America burned,” he said.
“In fact, there was a fire in Port Huron that killed 50.”
Parts of Sarnia also caught fire that night, Egan said.
“There was so much smoke going across the river that a schooner and tug collided, because they couldn’t see each other.”
As well as telling the story of the fire service, the book talks about what was going on in the city during those years, Egan said.
“So, it’s very much Sarnia’s latest history book, as well.”
Along with the fire education house display, Saturday’s book-signing at the fire hall will feature vintage fire engines, and hot dogs and hamburgers will be sold.
Copies of the book will also be available for $39.95 at The Book Keeper and the historical society’s website, www.sarniahistoricalsociety.com.
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