Thursday, April 18, 2013

A tribute to volunteer (rural) fire fighters

Volunteer Fire Dept. Station in Mt. Judea, Arkansas, April, 2013.  Mt. Judea is a tiny community in a persistent poverty county in the Arkansas Ozarks, Newton County.   
It took me a while, along my journey as a ruralist, to realize that volunteer fire fighting is a rural issue.  That is, places that rely on volunteer fire fighters tend to be rural places.  More populous and wealthier places, places incorporated as cities, tend to establish and invest in professional, well-compensated fire departments.  After I came to that epiphany, I started taking photos of volunteer fire departments wherever I went, and I feature just a few in this blog post.
Rico Volunteer Fire Dept., in
Dolores County, southwest part of Colorado
July, 2012 
In California, rural folks are especially aware that volunteer fire departments are a rural phenomenon because they have been paying a fire fee (or tax, depending on who you ask) for several years now.  It's been controversial, in part because the money goes to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection rather than to any of the numerous volunteer fire departments that actually defend the homes of California's rural residents.  Read news coverage of the fee here, here, and here.  

Volunteer Fire Dept. in Blairsden- Graeagle, California, in Plumas County,
in the northern Sierra-Nevada Mountains, March 2013.
I am writing this post now because two recent events have highlighted the sacrificial courage of volunteer fire fighters. The most recent was the explosion in West, Texas, last night, in which the town's volunteer fire fighters valiantly fought the blaze at the fertilizer facility until they realized it was getting out of control and moving toward the highly volatile storage tanks.  That is when at least some of them began evacuating the nearby nursing home and apartment complex.  In doing so, they saved many, many lives.  Yet news reports tell us that 3 to 5 of those firefighters are now missing, and they may be dead.  See coverage of these events here and here.  The Dallas Morning News currently features this headline: "Dallas Fire-Rescue captain, West City secretary among those missing after devastating explosion." The current New York Times headline also (awkwardly, language-wise) focuses on the local first responders as likely victims of the blast, "Ruins Searched for Firefighters after Blast at Factory Kills Five."  

Volunteer Fire Dept., Jasper, Arkansas, Newton County
November 2011 
The other event was the December, 2012, murder of two volunteer fire fighters responding to a fire in rural Webster, New York, on Lake Ontario.  The New York Times reported these events here and here.  An excerpt from one of the stories follows:
As Christmas Eve dawned in this suburb of Rochester, local authorities say, [William Spengler, Jr.] set fire to a car, as a trap. When an engine company came roaring down the street, he started shooting at the first responders, most likely from his Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle.
* * * 
The authorities say Mr. Spengler fired shots that killed two volunteer firefighters from long range and seriously wounded two others, and set a “raging inferno.” The police found him dead on a berm about five hours after the siege started, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Jondaryan Rural Fire Dept.,
Southern Queensland, Australia, August 2012
So, here's to volunteer (rural) fire fighters, who face a range of perils.  They not only train and courageously respond, they and their communities often have to raise their own funds, as the bottom photo illustrates.
Advertising a fire department fundraiser, Bodega, California
Sonoma County, March 2012 
N.B.  Moments after publishing this post, I came across this on the Dallas Morning News regarding 2011 cuts to volunteer fire departments in Texas.  Here is an excerpt from Christy Hoppe's story:
State lawmakers, struggling to erase a $27 billion budget shortfall two years ago without raising new revenue, slashed money throughout governmnet — including to volunteer fire departments. 
The Legislature cut its annual grants to such fire departments from $25 million to $7 million, leaving many of the 1,400 small communities scrambling. 
Asked if those cuts should be restored, following the fertilizer plant explosion in West that was fought by a volunteer fire department, Gov. Rick Perry said budget decisions are made by the Legislature. 
He also faced similar questions in November 2011 when volunteer firefighters were overwhelmed by wildfires in Bastrop County.
And here is a post script from the NYT, in its coverage of the West explosion.  The story by Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz focuses on one volunteer fire fighter:
Perry Calvin, 37, a married father of two with a third on the way, was one of the missing volunteer firefighters. He had been attending an emergency medical technician class in West on Wednesday evening when a firefighter in the class got a page about the fire at the fertilizer company, said his father, Phil Calvin. 
Perry Calvin and another man drove to the scene together and got there before the explosion. The other man was found dead Wednesday night. 
“It doesn’t look good, but we don’t have anything confirmed yet,” Phil Calvin, the fire chief in the town of Navarro Mills, said Thursday afternoon. About an hour after he spoke those words, he got the news, sitting by the phone at his home in nearby Frost: his son was indeed among the dead. 
Perry Calvin was not even a firefighter with the West department. He volunteered with another department in a nearby town, but had rushed to the scene to help, because he happened to be close. He is the kind of person who would be right at the head of the line, his father said. “He would do what he could to put the fire out or help find people.”

1 comment:

sherlykiller cast said...

I really appreciate this post. We are putting together a studio in our Architecture Dept. at the University of Tennessee to design an addition to a rural volunteer fire station in Appalachia. I would love to know if you have any further resources on books or articles that the students could utilize to gain a greater understanding of the lives of rural fire-fighters and the issues they face.
Thank you.