Montana Outdoors

December 14, 2007

A sad little story

Filed under: Montana, Reflections, Rural fire department, Wildland fires — Tags: — montucky @ 3:12 pm

Half a dozen times lately I have written versions of this story and each time deleted them, thinking that it dwelled too much on negatives, but because I seem to have such a compulsion to tell the story, I finally decided I would.

Fourteen years ago I moved with my family back to Montana where I was born and raised. We settled into a rural area and made our home on the last remaining little piece of a ranch my grandparents started in about 1916. It’s nice to have roots.

In Montana, as I’m sure it is all over these United States, the small towns and surrounding rural areas can’t afford all of the infrastructure that the big cities can, one of those being a fire department. In its place we form “Rural or Volunteer Fire Departments” staffed and operated solely by volunteers. Grant money from various sources is usually available for equipment and there are always several viable sources for operating funds which, since there are no salaries involved, really don’t add up to all that much. These departments are surprisingly efficient.

Not long after we settled here, wanting to do my part in supporting the community, I inquired into the situation at the Rural Fire Department and was told that they had a full staff of 20 people, but would put my name on a long waiting list and perhaps in a few years there would be room for me in the department. The situation was the same with the town fire department in the small town not far from my home, and they required besides that their members live in town.

In subsequent years I pretty much forgot about Rural Fire, mostly because during all those years I had to work in places far from home and couldn’t be available to the department anyway. Once the time came when I was able to be at home again I didn’t think much about it until one day last fall there was a story in the local paper that said Rural Fire was in badly in need of volunteers. When I called the chief and asked if he could use an old gaffer who still had a couple good years left I was welcomed with open arms. We met at the fire hall, I was issued all my “turn-out” and wildland fire gear and a pager and became a volunteer fireman with the Rural Fire Department. I have to confess I don’t especially enjoy being called out to incidents at any time of the day or night to do things that are always strenuous and dirty and at the very best aren’t a whole lot of fun, but I also know that I wouldn’t sleep well at night if I knew that at any time someone may be desperately in need of help and no one would be there to answer their call.

Two weeks ago another story appeared in the local paper, this one about the town’s fire department. Interest has severely waned there and their supply of volunteers has dwindled away, the Chief resigned because of lack of cooperation and availability of people, and now there is no one left to respond to emergency fire calls in the town. Thirteen hundred people live inside that town’s city limits and yet not enough of them will volunteer to be able to operate a fire department. To my way of thinking, the most significant thing about that whole sad situation in that pathetic little town was the response of the residents and business owners who were interviewed for the story: their first concern was not that lives and property are in danger, but that now their insurance rates will triple!

What could possibly have changed so drastically in the last 10 to 15 years? Is this sort of thing prevailing in small towns and rural communities all over the country? I have a sense that it is. And to me, the most important question: if this type of total selfishness and apathy is really growing at what appears to be an exponential rate, who then will exert themselves to protect the natural world upon which our very species depends for its existence?

Across the world we are now focusing intently on greenhouse gasses, but I would suggest that global warming itself is nothing more than one more symptom of a malady that has settled into the hearts and minds and motivation of our people.

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