Clovis Fire Department turns 100

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson Clovis Fire Chief Ray Westerman looks up documents from the “history file” at the Clovis Fire Department. The department turned 100 Friday.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

In his 34 years at the Clovis Fire Department, Ray Westerman has seen things that made him laugh, things he never wants to see again and breakthroughs in firefighting technology he never imagined.

But he’s got nothing on August Von Elm.

Von Elm was the first chief for the Clovis Volunteer Fire Department. He was appointed Aug. 7, 1909, and last Friday marked a century of fire protection.

The department was established by Ordinance No. 24, following the months-long aftermath of a devastating blaze in downtown Clovis.

An April 29, 1909, article in the Clovis News estimated losses at $25,000 — including restaurants, saloons, hotels and the west side of Main Street.

“Heroic efforts of citizens are credited with saving the entire eastern portion of the city from utter ruin,” the story without a reporter byline read.

So, Von Elm took over with an interesting first two weeks. The department battled numerous blazes at the Elk Bar, owned by John Childers. The department found Childers was starting the fires himself, and words escalated into violence between he and Von Elm.

After he was released on bail for charges of assault on Von Elm, Childers made known his intent to kill the fire chief. The Aug. 20 Clovis News described the duel on Main Street.

Childers was fatally shot, but not before he put three bullets into Von Elms leg. Westerman holds back a laugh as if to say, “Are you serious?” when he reads that had Von Elm not killed Childers, the town was discussing lynching Childers anyway.

“I’ve never had to go into a duel as of yet,” Westerman said. “Hope I never do.”

The department handles much different affairs now, with about 18 calls daily for fire or emergency medical transport services. Some are serious, but some are of what Westerman calls the “Mrs. Smith” variety.

Customer service training at the department includes a book about “Mrs. Smith,” representative of the citizens who call with any request.

“If Mrs. Smith has a problem she cannot manage,” Westerman said, “and it doesn’t need law enforcement, she calls the fire department.”

The department has a dozen trucks and 78 employees spread out at its main location at Mitchell Street and four others, keeping the department within two miles of anywhere in the city.

Westerman’s seen things he’d never imagine, like a domesticated bird stuck in a tree beyond its owner’s reach.

And he’s been through one “in the line of duty” funeral, which he never wants to experience again. Tim Martin died June 10, 1977, when he was treating a patient and was unrestrained and the ambulance he was riding in crashed.

But in his more than three decades — with the last five years as chief — Westerman said the time has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The men and women of this department are very proud to serve this community and always have been,” Westerman said. “This department will work to serve Clovis for the next 100 years as well.”