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History of city’s fire department is hot stuff

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Cathy Dobson

Phil Egan and Kevin McHarg are discovering plenty of little gems that promise to make an upcoming history of Sarnia’s fire department a real page-turner.

“There was a fire chief in the 1930s who disappeared and no one knew where he was for weeks,” says Egan, chief editor at the Sarnia Historical Society.

By scanning newspapers of the day, Egan and McHarg have pieced together the story of Chief Burton Batty, who received a phone call at work one night and told his crew he had to go to a hotel in Port Huron immediately.

He was later reported missing. Even his wife had no idea where Batty might have gone.

“The next thing we find, he wakes up in St. Louis weeks and weeks later,” said Egan. “We are still working on it and don’t know yet if he was reinstated as chief.

“There’s a lot of interesting stuff to read about.”

Egan is spearheading the historical society’s project, strongly motivated by a long family connection with Sarnia’s fire department.

After Egan’s sister died in a house fire in 1985, her family started a drive to make smoke detectors mandatory in Sarnia long before it became provincial law. Egan’s late father, Joe, also fought hard to keep the East Street fire hall open when threatened with closure.

The 175-year history of Sarnia’s fire services has never been researched and assembled, said Egan.  “It’s time.”

Last fall, the historical society put a call out for research volunteers. Among those who responded were retired firefighter McHarg, firefighter Bryan Watson and Jack Breddy, a Sarnia Historical Society volunteer.

“They are all a big help,” said Egan. “And Kevin has singlehandedly researched about 80 years of the department’s history.”

The first bucket brigade was formed in the 1840s. Because the community’s first daily newspaper didn’t publish until 1853, the early years of the brigade are being mined from Captain Vidal’s journals.

“We know that Sarnia’s first big fire was a mill on the waterfront owned by Malcolm Cameron,” said Egan. The fire department began keeping records in the 1890s.

The book, with a working title of ‘Walking Through Fire: The History of Sarnia’s Bravest,’ will read more like a novel than a history text, said Egan, who expects to hold a book launch in September.

The Historical Society is currently looking for sponsors to help cover the production cost of the book and hopes to receive a grant from Lambton County.

For more, contact the Sarnia Historical Society at [email protected] or call Egan 519-491-6361, or visit the website at

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