End of a Fire Department Era

White Bear Lake fire chief retires after three decades on the job.
Newly retired Tim Vadnais is looking forward to spending more time with his family, including his sweet granddaughter.

Career paths can be difficult to predict; recently retired White Bear Lake fire chief Tim Vadnais knows that well. Vadnais, who retired December 31 after nearly three decades as chief, grew up on Bald Eagle Avenue, just a few blocks from the fire station, and had cousins who were volunteer firefighters. Vadnais initially wanted to become a St. Paul police officer, but was discouraged by the hundreds of applicants vying for the few jobs. He went to school, then went on to join the WBL Fire Department.

When Vadnais joined in 1974, it was an all-volunteer department as it is today; firefighters receive an hourly wage for fire calls and required monthly drills. “Even the chief was a volunteer at that time,” he recalls. Vadnais paid the bills by working at his grandfather Adlore Vadnais’ business, the White Bear Oil Co., at Fourth and Bald Eagle.
When Vadnais started, all of the training was on-the-job. During the first-year probationary period, new hires “didn't get too involved in interior firefighting. After that they turned you loose.” Today, firefighters complete a variety of certification classes offered by the state, county and at Century College.

Structure fires were a common occurrence in Vadnais’ early years on the department. “There wasn’t much prevention activity going on,” Vadnais says, citing a statistic that indicates how things have improved: When Vadnais joined, the White Bear fire district averaged one accidental fire death every 18 months. “Now, it’s been 30 years since we’ve had a death. I attribute that to good fire prevention and good building codes. And better training.”

Another key change: The equipment firefighters wear has become much better: self-contained breathing apparatus, sturdier helmets, Nomex hoods, and more fire-resistant coats and pants.  

In January 1988, Vadnais succeeded his uncle, Gordy Vadnais, as the chief, after a yearlong selection process that included applicants from around the country.

Vadnais considers the most significant change in the department’s history to be the advent of advanced life support service. “In 1979, six of us went to paramedic school. We were one of the first volunteer departments in the state with advanced life support ambulance service,” he says. “It used to be that the fire department went on occasional ambulance calls; now, 85 percent of our calls are medical, and we occasionally put out a fire.”

In retirement, the 65-year-old Vadnais plans to “take up old hobbies I had given up—hunting and fishing.” Vadnais, who is divorced with four grown children, also wants to spend some time with his young granddaughter and travel “anyplace that’s warm in the winter.” In January, he vacationed in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

Vadnais is glad the White Bear department has remained largely volunteer, and hopes that will continue. “It’s a good system; it saves the city $3 million a year in payroll costs. Plus, the altruism in being volunteers says a lot about the people in the department. They are in it to serve their fellow man, not for the money.”

Tim Vadnais’ Most Memorable Calls

When Vadnais looks back on his career, the call he remembers most vividly was the 1979 crash of a small plane, which killed four people. “The plane didn't catch on fire, which is unusual,” he says. “When I got there, I realized there was nothing I could do. It was horrific; something like that sticks in your mind forever.”

His most memorable fire was an early-morning blaze, which destroyed most of the White Bear Shopping Center. “I lived across from the fire station then, and when I was running over to get on the truck, I could see the flames from there.”