The firemen of Last Resort

If you drive across the Ballard Bridge and then turn right, almost immediately, onto N.W. 51st Street, you'll come across a large building on the right that has a lot of old fire engines (excuse me, apparatus), parked therein. This is the home of the Last Resort Fire Department (LRFD).

I was recently given a quick tour of the facilities by fellow Magnolian Bob Thelen. Believe me, it was quite a sight, and I spent a very interesting couple of hours talking about antique fire apparatus.

Thelen and his son Billy, 15, have been involved as volunteer members of the LRFD for just over a year now. Current LRFD membership stands at 20, with eight drivers, nine associates and three (10-15 year old) junior associates. Previous membership has numbered up to more than 40 uniformed members.

The LRFD is a nonprofit, charitable corporation that is dedicated to the acquisition, restoration, preservation and display of classic antique motorized fire apparatus. First officially begun in 1969, the LRFD started when a handful of dedicated individuals banded together to form what is now the largest collection of antique motorized fire apparatus in the Pacific Northwest.

"I first became aware of the LRFD," Thelen told me, "when I was doing the Magnolia Seafair Kid's Parade back in 2002. I was looking for parade entrants, so I drove over and introduced myself. Soon I was making repeat visits and the LRFD has been a parade participant ever since."

As soon as we entered the LRFD shop/garage I was introduced to Galen Thomaier, who told me that the roots of the LRFD actually went back to 1942, when his father, Boyd Thomaier, volunteered for the Seattle Fire Department Auxiliary Brigade. The auxiliary brigades were a force funded by the Office of Civil Defense to supplement manpower during Word War II.

During those "auxiliary" days, Boyd's oldest son Gary, and for that matter the entire family, many times would accompany him to the fire station or even to the fires themselves.

When the Thomaier family eventually moved into a house at 31st Street and Dravus in Magnolia, Boyd was reassigned to Station 41, where he was promoted to captain of the Station 41 Auxiliary, after having served at stations in Ravenna and Wallingford.

The next several years saw both Gary and younger brother Galen riding their bikes to fires in the Magnolia area.

All of that early exposure to the fire service must have convinced Gary that fire fighting was what he was destined to do, because in May of 1959 he began a fire-service career that has been ongoing in various capacities ever since.

For Galen, the decision to become a fire fighter started the night of May 20, 1958. Gary came home late that night, burst into the house, woke everybody up and yelled, "the Cedar Mill's on fire!" The entire family got up, threw on their clothes, piled into the family car and drove "code red" to the scene.

As soon as they left the house, there was what Galen describes as "an eerie orange glow in the sky." When they rounded the curve where Government Way becomes Gilman Ave W, the whole sky over Ballard was lit up with fire.

Galen has been to a lot of fires since then, but he still describes the Cedar Mill fire as the most frightening fire he's ever seen.

By the end of 1960, Boyd and Galen had been in every SFD station, had seen every piece of equipment and had photographs of them all, except some of the older reserve apparatus. It was those older rigs that interested them the most, and many have become part of the LRFD collection.

As a Queen Anne Grizzly, unlike other high-school aged boys who might have hidden copies of Hot Rod or some other automotive magazine in their schoolbooks, Galen read fire department manuals hidden behind his school textbook covers. When he took the Seattle Fire Department entrance exam in 1964, he scored sixth highest, even though he was under 18 and too young to join.

When Galen did join in 1967, he began a 26-year career of driving fire apparatus, 22 years of those behind the wheel of Engine 18 for the SFD, which lasted until 1993. In 1988 Galen was designated by SFD Chief Harris as the "Official SFD Historian."

In 1963, all three Thomaiers-Boyd, Gary and Galen, along with several other individuals-became involved in the restoration of Seattle's 1927 Ahrens-Fox pumper, which was completed in 1965. This apparatus was displayed at the newly created Fire Museum at the Seattle Center in 1966, and the group began to acquire and restore other apparatus. By the end of 1971 they had amassed a total of 11 old rigs and had begun referring to themselves as the "Last Resort Fire Department."

When it became obvious that the Fire Museum was going to be closed due to major "upgrades" at the Seattle Center, Boyd and Galen began looking for a building to house their rapidly growing collection.

They never found a suitable building, but they did find a vacant piece of affordable property in Ballard. With the help of several volunteers, thereby saving thousands of dollars, a building was constructed and officially occupied on Oct. 1,1973. Practically every cubic inch of available space inside the building is utilized for the storage of fire service heritage memorabilia, the equipment and tools necessary for the upkeep and maintenance of the fleet. Also included within the building are administrative offices, a lunch room and a combination meeting room and resource library.

The members of LRFD now own a total of 30 pieces of equipment, ranging from an Ahrens-Fox to Seagraves, Macks and Kenworths, of which only 12 are displayed at the shop. You can't walk between the apparatus, they are parked that tightly inside; there might be a foot of walkway between the wall and the first apparatus. They fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, with some bumpers and tailboards overlapping. If you want to get to one piece of apparatus, you might have to move five different pieces, in correct order, to get it out.

The rest of the rigs are stored in driveways and backyards all the way from Carbonado to North Bend. Many of these apparatus are unrestored and exposed to the weather.

In addition to the apparatus, the LRFD has a tremendous amount of fire service memorabilia, including documents, historical data and hundreds of photographs of apparatus and fire stations of the SFD dating from the 1800s to present.

One necessary requirement to be a volunteer for the LRFD, Thelen says with a chuckle and a wide grin, is "you have to have a passion for polishing."

One look at all the classic antique fire equipment with all their gleaming brass, nickel and chrome bright work, not to mention the expanses of polished paint panels, I can see why.[[In-content Ad]]