Ken Spence was called to evacuate homes in September 1977 as fire engulfed the Shell and Standard Oil plants in Nanaimo. He was put on the hoses instead.
“We got called in, it was a gas tank fire and not a big deal and by the time we got there, it was a big deal,” said Spence, who marked 50 years as a volunteer with Lantzville Fire Rescue this month.
“Forty-five gallon barrels flying over your head like popcorn, fireballs coming down and burning the backs off of boots of some guys. That was a scary one,” he said.“There were eerie sounds and whistles of fireballs before they took off. They stayed with you for a long time.”
Spence, 66, is the longest-serving volunteer firefighter at the Lantzville department, joining when he was 15 years old in 1966.
He was looking for something to do when a friend asked if he’d be interested in joining the department. He decided to give it a try.
He knew a lot of the volunteers. He lived in the community since he was three years old when his father, a telegraph operator, was transferred from Wellington to Lantzville’s Canadian Pacific Rail station. Thanks to Spence’s job as a paperboy, he also knew everyone from one end of the community to the other.
He was the youngest firefighter at the time, he said. The first call he got he couldn’t go to because he didn’t have his driver’s licence yet.
It was an altogether different trade in those days. There was little training other than what you learned yourself, although in those days there were more calls to structure fires so you got experience quickly, he said. Today volunteers can go years without seeing a structure fire.
Emergency calls would come in to the Lantzville store, across from the fire hall where the district offices are today. Owners Oliver and Edna Costin would set off the siren – volunteers’ only call to action – and Edna would wait on the steps to tell firefighters where to go.
“You heard the siren or you didn’t hear the siren,” Spence said, adding that lots of times just two people went out in the truck.
Around 1969, Spence became fire chief. He was too young, but nobody else wanted it, said Spence, who found a year was enough and became a deputy chief – a position he held for more than 20 years.
Volunteerism has been balanced with a career as an explosive technician and his family. It’s fair to say he’s missed a few dinners over the years. He never knew when he was going out or what he was doing, he said, with a quick laugh.
When he was first dating his wife, he was supposed to meet her one evening at her place and never showed. He got called to a trailer fire and with no cellphones, she didn’t know what happened to him.
“That was just about the end of the whole affair,” he said. “Luckily we got over that part and it’s been almost 39 years now.”
After 50 years, Spence still enjoys being a volunteer firefighter. It’s dealing with the unknown more than anything, he said. He plans to continue as long as he has his health and something to offer others.