Committed membership bolsters Lake Ainslie VFD

May 21, 2024

Volunteer firefighters pose next to fire engine.
The Lake Ainslie Volunteer Fire Department has had just four chiefs in its 52-year history. From left are Michael Gillis, Hugh Campbell, current chief Mike Gillis, and Hugh Cameron.

If you live in the area served by the Lake Ainslie Volunteer Fire Department (LAVFD), and you’ve got nine friends who are not members of the department, the math says you’re likely a member yourself!

With a slate of 30 active members, the department serves the communities of South Lake Ainslie, East Lake Ainslie, Scotsville, North Lake Ainslie, Kenloch, Upper Margaree and Gillisdale. That represents a population that department chief Mike Gillis guesses is somewhere in the vicinity of 300.

“Almost every family that lives within our coverage area has a connection to the department, either their brother, their sister, their mom or their dad, or grandfather are part of the department,” Gillis says.

“We’re fortunate to have a very well mixed group of people, from the age of 19 to 82, that are still active in some capacity,” he adds, noting that many volunteer departments in Nova Scotia are struggling to maintain their membership. “Our coverage area is very small. We’re one of the smallest departments in the municipality.”

Volunteer firefighters pose in front of a fire engine.
The LAVFD still has six founding members of its department who are active in some capacity. From left are Hugh Campbell, DJ MacLean, Hugh Cameron, Wesley MacLean, Aldan MacInnis, and Michael Gillis.
Volunteer firefighters pose next to medical gurney.
From left are Jake MacEachern, James MacLean and Brittany Fitzgerald, all members of the department’s rescue team, as they show off the rescue basket, which is equipped with skis for winter months and rubber tires for the other three seasons.

That consistent membership has also been reflected at the top, as the department has had just four chiefs in its 52-year history. Hugh Campbell served as the first chief from 1972 to 1984, before being replaced by Hugh Cameron, who served until 1995. The present chief ’s father, Michael Gillis, was chief for just over 20 years, before handing over the reins to his son in 2016.

While it may be one of the county’s smaller departments, their acronym in the early years was anything but small, as the letters AUMVFD (Ainslie Upper Margaree Volunteer Fire Department) adorned their trucks.

“At the time, when the department was formed, we were trying to represent all pieces,” Gillis recalls. “So in the 90s, we kind of had a refocus. You’d see the letters AUMVFD, and nobody knew what it stood for or where it was.”

There were about 25 to 30 members in that initial department in 1972, when a group of residents met and decided that the area, previously served by departments in Inverness, Whycocomagh and Margaree, needed its own firefighters. The initial fire building was built on land donated by Murdoch and Mary Sarah MacDougall.

Volunteer firefighters posing in front of their Self Contained Breathing Apparatuses.
From left are Ryan MacDougall, Derek MacKinnon, Hailey MacDonald, and Jake MacEachern, as they check out some of the department’s new SCBAs (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) and its scene lighting and generator which is all stored on the newest pumper/tanker.

“It started out as one small building,” Gillis says. “There have been several additions over the years.”

“The MacLean family donated the first truck – a old oil truck of sorts from the ’50s with a tank on it,” he adds. “We’ve come a fairly long way. In 2019 we purchased our first new pumper/tanker which is pretty much on par with what all the neighbouring departments have for trucks now.”

The department also has a 2000 GMC Tanker, a utility van, and a utility trailer, which stores their rescue sled.

“As far as equipment goes, we’re very well off,” Gillis says. “There’s always some more firefighter gear, turnout gear that you’ve got to keep replacing, so that’s always on the agenda.”

Keeping the department well equipped requires a great deal of fundraising, and the Nova Scotia Firefighters Weekly 50/50 Jackpot, which raises funds for departments throughout the province, puts about $15 000 a year in their coffers. He says the draw, which began in 2020, now represents the LAVFD’s biggest fundraiser.

“It’s been a huge, huge help, especially in the first couple of years with Covid and post-Covid, where fundraising activities were difficult to have,” he explains. “You couldn’t have gatherings, you couldn’t have ceilidhs or dances, so it really filled the void for that.”

“I think it’s one of the most successful 50/50 raffle draws in the country,” Gillis notes.

Participants in the weekly draw select the department they want to support when they purchase their ticket, and a portion of those dollars go to that department.

The LAVFD has a number of infrastructure projects on the go, as it hopes to complete installation of a metal roof on the firehall this summer. It’s also soon going to serve as a comfort centre for the communities its serves, thanks to a program funded 100% by the provincial and municipal governments.

“The generator has arrived and it’s in place, so we’re just waiting on the electricians and some of the subtrades to complete the work, so we’re hoping to have it completed by the spring,” Gillis says.

He says with an aging population, it’s even more important for his department to be able to offer a warm meal or a place to charge electronic devices.

“A lot of people in our area are pretty self-sufficient when it comes to power outages, but when we look at the bigger picture for any kind of natural disaster, if there’s a wildfire and we have to evacuate, I think it will support other communities more than our own community,” he explains. “If Inverness had to evacuate people from the hospital or the nursing home, we could support the other neighbouring communities as well as our own.”

While it’s difficult to predict when a crisis might arise, one thing is clear: members of the LAVFD will do what they always do, and that’s serve their community.