Fred Gumbus still remembers the time he burned off his eyebrows, decades ago in a brush fire.
“The wind changed” and the flames “came across a big field of grass,” Gumbus said. He goes by “Pop” at the Port Jefferson Fire Department, where he is an honorary chief and a member since 1948.
He and Hugh Campbell, a former chief who joined the same year, were running from the fire, but realized it was gaining on them and they couldn’t outrun it. “We have to go through,” Gumbus said, and they covered their noses and mouths with their hands.
Campbell said, “We were going to burn to death if we stayed there.”
They made it out, coughing and choking.
Gumbus said his buddy was laughing at him and when he asked what was so funny, Campbell told him he didn’t have any eyebrows. He responded that Campbell didn’t either, “and we busted out laughing.”
The pair, who were once in the first grade together in Stony Brook, were in their 20s then. Now they are in their late 80s, and still members of a department that has since seen great changes.
The Port Jefferson Fire Department marks its 125th anniversary this year, and equipment and techniques are drastically different from the days these men first joined.
James Newcomb, an honorary chief who joined almost 69 years ago, said firefighters once used something called an “Indian can,” which was a metal backpack that held five gallons of water and squirted with a hand pump. Firefighters also used to just wear a rubber coat.
Campbell said those coats would burn or melt. He also noted changes to the way firefighters work — “in the old days we had more surround and drown,” but now firefighters attack the flames, and put them out where they are. They no longer “stand outside and watch it burn.”
One fire Walter Baldelli remembers was at the O.B. Davis Furniture Store on East Main Street. Baldelli, a 93-year-old honorary chief and a member since 1948, said the department fought flames through the whole night at the old wood-floored building, and found the body of a night watchman the next day.
Campbell said he was on the stoop next door taking a break and saw the man’s toes sticking up in the bathroom of the scorched building. The watchman was flat on the floor and his body “was like it was boiled” because the water shooting in from the hoses turned to steam. The firefighters knew the man was in there somewhere because he had left his hat at the back door of the building.
Another large fire was at the post office when it was on Main Street. It was 1948, and Baldelli said hoses drafted water from the harbor to put out the flames. He could taste the saltwater in the air.
The fire had started in the cellar, Baldelli said, and when the blaze was put out and he went down there, the water came up high and it was warm. He added that an employee on the scene when the fire broke out saved all the first class mail.
At one brush fire, Newcomb was on Norwood Avenue and the fire was jumping through the treetops on both sides of him. Newcomb said it was his scariest fire and when the flames came over his head, he stuck his nose in the dirt and the explosion “sounded like a jet coming down.” He said he couldn’t breathe for about 30 seconds.
Newcomb will be the grand marshal of the department’s 125th anniversary parade, which is on June 9 at 5:30 pm. The fire department, which was established in 1887, is also holding a block party on Maple Place that evening, with a display of antique apparatus.