Burning passion; Former chief had passion for firefighting early on

MILFORD – The fire alarm was a welcome sound when Dick Tortorelli was a senior at Milford High School long ago.

He and five other boys were part of the Milford Fire Department’s brush fire squad. They would jump from their chairs in what is now Bales School on Elm Street and run to the Fire Station in Town Hall.

Tortorelli liked the work so much that he joined the department when he was 21, and he eventually became the department’s first full-time chief. He retired in 1999 after 17 years as chief and more than half a century with the department.

But in a way, Tortorelli never really retired. His police scanner is always with him, and if a fire sounds serious, he’s out the door with his camera.

Some of his photos are in albums and many are framed on the basement wall of the Osgood Road home he shares with his wife, Barbara. He calls it his “man cave.” But it’s also a museum of local firefighting.

There are almost 300 photos on the wall. Many are framed – so many that when he puts one up, he has to take another one down. There are seven fat photo albums on the coffee table.

On shelves, there are miniature fire engines, fire-related toys and memorabilia, and many awards and trophies. Dozens of fire helmets hang from a rafter, and Tortorelli shows his chief’s bugle, a gift from the Fire Department that’s a replica of the bugles that fire chiefs in olden days used to holler orders through.

Among the photos are those of the biggest Milford fire ever, a spectacular blaze that destroyed the White Elephant, a sprawling building that housed a giant flea market that advertised it had everything “from a collar button to an elephant.”

Tortorelli was only 21, and he remembers every detail, including how many feet of what diameter hose was used that night.

Firefighters arrived at the scene – where the Cumberland Farms store is now, near the Oval – at 9:24 p.m. Jan. 23, 1966. It was snowing very hard, with at least a foot of snow on the ground.

Without the snow, “We would have lost many buildings,” Tortorelli said.

Eventually, there were 16 engines and two ladder trucks on the scene, with connections to eight hydrants. Four engines were also pumping water from the Souhegan River.

About 60 firefighters from 18 towns fought the blaze, he remembers, and no one was injured.

Chief Roland Sprague didn’t let anyone enter the building. The Nashua Fire Department brought an engine and ladder truck and protected the house next door, only a few feet away.

“It was very obvious when we arrived” that it was arson, Tortorelli said.

There was a strong odor of gasoline and tracks in the snow that led to and from the basement door and back onto Nashua Street.

“There was gasoline spilled all over the place,” he said.

They never found the culprit.

The White Elephant fire came near the end of a series of arson fires in the 1960s, when it seemed like there was at least one fire a week, Tortorelli said.

First, every abandoned building in town was targeted. Next to go were unattached barns, then attached barns.

Then, the situation became very strange, Tortorelli said.

The building on Elm Street where Hayward Farms made ice cream caught fire. But before the fire was set, the arsonist stole a large painting. He then went to a building on Route 13, where the Quarry Condominiums are now, and hung the painting on the wall and set that building on fire.

While firefighters from Milford and surrounding towns were at Hayward’s, two more fires were called in – a barn fire in Amherst and another one on Union Street in Milford. All three turned out to be arson.

“It was awful,” Tortorelli said. “We were up all night long, chasing fire after fire.”

All told, there were about 25 fires set in the early 1960s. It got so bad that the Fire Department set up nighttime guard duty, and people stayed up trying to protect their homes and businesses.

Finally, a firefighter noticed a teenager running away from a fire; police knew who he was and kept their eye on him.

They were also watching another teen. One night, the detective watched him leave the house, go behind it and set an outbuilding on fire.

The two juveniles, who were working separately, spent some time in jail.

Tortorelli collects everything and anything that has to do with fire. The biggest item, by far, is his 1953 American LaFrance engine, which he drives in the town’s annual Labor Day parade. Not many people know how he acquired it, though.

Long ago, the Fire Department had sold it to a Long Island, N.Y., fire department and Tortorelli reclaimed it. He and Barbara were married down there in 1982, and he still keeps in touch with the firefighter-judge who married them.

Once the vehicle was back in Milford, Tortorelli spent four years refurbishing it. It still runs today, and is stored in his garage – what is jokingly referred to as Milford’s “two-bay substation.”

There is one old fire vehicle he regrets not having.

Twenty years ago, Tortorelli came upon an antique Milford fire wagon at Clark’s Trading Post in Lincoln.

It found its way to the White Mountains after the town loaned it to a Manchester man who had a fire museum, Tortorelli said. After the man died, his family auctioned off everything, and the wagon wound up at Clark’s.

The Manchester man had signed a document saying the wagon was on loan, and Tortorelli and the town clerk searched Town Hall files for the document without success. The wagon is still at Clark’s, he said.

There are many fewer fires these days. Along with tougher building codes and fire regulations, Tortorelli attributes the drop to the “Learn Not To Burn” program. Milford was the first town in New Hampshire to adopt the state program. In the late 1980s, Tortorelli said, firefighters showed first-grade teachers how to teach the program.

A lot of children were starting fires with matches, Tortorelli said.

“Within two or three years, we saw a dramatic drop in child-started fires,” he said.

Tortorelli is also proud that the Milford Fire Department was the first in the state to acquire Scott Air Paks. He was only 15 in 1952 when he witnessed two firefighters, Mario Infanti and Dominic Calvetti, wearing the new breathing apparatus, rescue 19 elderly residents from a fire at the Cox Nursing Home on Union Street.

After that, Nashua and Manchester acquired the devices, “but we were ahead of everyone,” Tortorelli said.

Looking back at his teenage days on the brush fire squad, Tortorelli said he probably joined to get out of class.

It was not long before he loved it.

“After I was on for 10 years, most of the members were World War II veterans and very, very good people who thought a lot about the community and the people in it, and I became part of that,” he said. “This town is very fortunate to have some of the best fire chiefs in New Hampshire.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.