Throughout South King County the story was the same — local communities seeing a need for fire protection and working together to make it happen, forming effective volunteer fire districts without any official training or professional organization. South King Fire & Rescue descends from these innovative pioneers.
After a number of large fires, including the burning of the Des Moines School in 1925, a number of local residents took the initiative and arranged for their own fire protection. Des Moines Auto Company mechanic Otto Marshal raised donations and purchased a 1923 Model-T, equipping it with two 60-gallon chemical tanks and enlisting the help of volunteers.
By 1937, Del Osterhaus and his wife, Wally, were operating a private fire department. He installed a siren on the roof of his service station at South 225th and Marine View Drive, where he coordinated volunteer efforts.
A 1938 Redondo fire prompted local residents to form an ad hoc committee and purchase a Model-A flatbed truck and a couple hundred feet of hose.
About 1940, Steel Lake residents formed a group, storing some hose and a trailer in a shed, where the first arriving car with a trailer hitch would hook up and respond to the fire. Chief John Long and volunteers operated their unofficial fire department. Makeshift efforts such as these provided effective fire protection for their respective communities.
Fire District No. 22 was formed during World War II in a special election in November 1944. Local Steel Lake residents purchased a surplus Army fire truck until government funding could be obtained.
By several accounts, the truck had been dropped in the icy waters of Alaska while being unloaded, declared surplus and was purchased by District 22, which operated on an initial annual budget of $400. According to District 22 firefighter Philip Fisher, the cab had no doors or roof and was stored in the back yard of a volunteer. A local citizen loaned his garage to the fledgling department and allowed a siren to be installed on its roof. Despite meager funds, the district obtained land and a Quonset hut, opening in 1949 on the west side of 18th Avenue near 308th South. A ladies auxiliary, the Federal Way Flames, was formed to raise funds and provide support.
In 1948, voters approved a large annexation by District 22, increasing the size to approximately nine square miles. A new station on 28th Avenue South was completed in 1959, and the district began responding on EMS runs in 1961 after purchasing a used aid car from District 2. The opening of Interstate 5 the following year brought growth to the area; two new stations opened in 1967.
District 22 Chief Bill Smith and Lakeland Fire District 39 Chief Bud Thorson began discussing a merger, thinking it would be a good deal for the community.
Formed in 1949, Lakeland equipment included a resuscitator so volunteers could respond to drowning incidents at the area’s many lakes, saving a number of lives.
The district purchased a 500-gallon-per-minute pumper truck in 1950, storing it in a volunteer’s barn. In 1967, voters in Steel Lake/Federal Way Fire Department District 22 voted to merge into Lakeland Fire District 39; the merged departments became known as the Federal Way Fire Department.
Five years after a failed attempt to form Fire District 15, Redondo residents formed Fire District 32 in 1947; the communities of Mirror Lake, Buenna, Lakota and Adelaide later voted to join them. In 1972, District 32 residents voted to merge into District 39.
After three neighborhood homes were destroyed by fire, volunteers organized Star Lake District 30 in 1947, purchasing a 1935 Ford truck after a fundraising benefit. In 1980, voters approved the merger of District 30 into District 39.
Zenith/Des Moines Fire District 26 was formed in 1945, with Osterhaus named as chief. When the citizens of Des Moines voted to merge District 26 into District 39 in 2006, the Federal Way Fire Department became known as South King Fire & Rescue to better represent the 150,000 citizens throughout the 41 square miles it serves.
Several years after his retirement, Thorson reminisced about the day in 1955 when he heard a siren and came out to see the fire truck and cars behind it.
Surmising they were volunteer firefighters, he was immediately interested in volunteering, and recalled thinking, “Out here in the country, that’s what neighbors do.”
Karen Meador is the Historical Society of Federal Way activities and administrative coordinator.
Editor’s Note: The Historical Society of Federal Way exhibit “That’s What Neighbors Do: The formation of South King Fire & Rescue” is scheduled to open to the public in February 2018.