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Fighting Fires for Fifty Years with Jack Vanatter

May 13, 2022

Jack Vanatter's Retirement Photo from the Fenelon Falls Fire Department

For Jack Vanatter, the rush that came with fighting fires never grew old. “It was just like the little boy in the man that enjoyed the excitement,” he recalled “it was always fun. I never thought about the danger.” It was a passion that was evident to many Fenelon Falls residents who knew and appreciated Jack.

Jack’s day job was operating Van’s Groceteria (now the Kawartha North Family Health Team on Colborne Street). Founded by his parents Earl and Emily Vanatter, Van’s had the variety of groceries that local families expected back in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were especially known for their meats—the original business was Van’s Meat Market. Many customers would fondly remember Jack standing at the meat counter, preparing whatever cuts they desired, and then the fire alarm would go off. Jack would drop everything and sprint out of the store, “untying his butcher’s apron as he ran,” Cheryl recounts.

Jack explained “I used to race Fred Brandon to the station every time the siren went off. It was a standing joke between us, I was a block and a half away. Brandon had to make it from his hardware store [Home Hardware, now the Colborne Street Gallery] about three quarters of a block away, but he was older than me.” The fire station was located on the island, east of the main street, right beside the lower lock (until 1963 Fenelon Falls had two-stage locks.)

When he started out in 1947, Fenelon Falls had just one fire truck and not enough boots, hats or coats to go around, “so you usually came home with wet feet.” It also had a stationary fire pump that took water from a reservoir by the station, but the hose could not reach far from the station. Even with the truck it was hard to get enough water to suppress fires outside of the downtown. “Most of the firefighting was from the outside in those days when we did the choke and puke bit. Now there is the gear to go in to a building and feel comfortable about it.” He could recount when the village got its first tanker, “Ol’ Yeller”

Jack served before there were cell phones or pagers. Many of the firefighters operated businesses in close proximity to the fire hall, because they were the ones who could hear the siren. As precious time was wasting, the village desperately telephoned other volunteers to see if they could come and help out.

Jack fought every major fire in the area, including memorable blazes at Rosedale Furniture (formerly the Botany Spinners and the Grist Mill) and the Anchorage House (formerly Alpine Inn and Hotel Kawartha). The latter fire was in winter, and the men were just about frozen by the end of the night. While trying to extinguish a blazing store in downtown Lindsay, Jack and Doug Ellery were high up a ladder when it started to slip. They had to jump free as it crashed to the ground. Jack escaped uninjured but Doug broke his leg. Despite the dangers, they were always willing to do what they could to help get the flames under control.

As a firefighter, he had to face many nightmarish scenes. There were deaths involved, terrible car crases, and frigid ice rescues. “It was just something he had always done, and growing up I didn’t really worry about him. But when he was in his late 60s, we started to ask him about his safety. Even then he was never one to stand back, he would be one of the first to rush in.” Even then the fire chief noticed that he outworked rookies half his age. His loving wife Ina was relieved when he finally hung up his helmet after a half century of service. As he retired, Fenelon Falls Fire Chief Thomas Love observed, “he was the epitome of a volunteer firefighter in every sense of the word.” His last shift was on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and he would work until 2 o’clock in the morning. It was far from the first late night in his career.

When he started out as a firefighter, there was nothing like the protective equipment of today. He would rush off to fight the fires “wearing the same clothes that he wore at the store.” Ina, being the supportive spouse that she was, “would have to wash the clothes over and over again…. She would hang them out on the line for days trying to get the smell out of them.” They did not have the respirators that are standard issue today, and they were exposed to all kinds of fumes. Jack cared about his health, and in an age was smoking was everywhere, he abstained. But all the hazards he faced as a firefighter were a small price to pay for everything he did to help keep his community safe.

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