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.


  1. This is a thoughtful post Montucky – and I do agree. Overall the little town that we support with our time and money has a population of 130 people. (me personally I think that number is an exaggeration) and we have a volunteer fire department that is up and running. There is one located in Kettle Falls pop. 1550. and every year our neighbor has to go door to door to fine new volunteers. (They always do this right after a fire scare like the one you had up in your area with a little brochure in hand.) Apathy is an apt word. There are other causes (at least in this area). Most of the men in our area are retired (and usually disabled) vets or the extremely rich who would not really care either way. And I wonder if something like that plays in as well??? I’m not sure…. the question is what is the solution? For some men it’s tough to say no over a cup of coffee. Just a thought.


    Comment by aullori — December 15, 2007 @ 12:10 am

  2. Sometimes I think that we can either have a close knit community, or a global community. The more we have of one, the more the other suffers. It goes back to what I say about almost everything- it’s all about balance.


    Comment by WordVixen — December 15, 2007 @ 1:56 am

  3. Lori,

    Our areas are quite similar, aren’t they? We also have a lot of retired folks, and of course the disabled aren’t candidates for a department. We have a growing number of the rich who have recently moved here, and they contribute absolutely nothing to the community but still demand services.

    Since I don’t live in the town, there’s nothing I can do about their situation except risk my neck for them in case of a fire (Rural Fire will answer calls there simply because someone has to, although I understand there are major insurance problems with that).

    Rural fire is always looking for more help too, and they have tried a lot of things I really thought would work with no results. The makeup of our department is interesting. We have about a dozen who are the stable ones, all over 50, and nearly that many who are “Junior Firefighters”, in their late teens, and no one in between. For safety reasons the Juniors have certain limitations imposed on them, but I consider them the good news. They always respond, work hard and have great attitudes. Several are actually planning to make firefighting a career (with the Forest Service). Wouldn’t you think the adults would learn from them?


    Comment by montucky — December 15, 2007 @ 9:21 am

  4. Wordvixen,

    I agree that one of the biggest problems is that balance is missing. I completely agree that so much is about balance, and in the local versus global issue it’s paramount. In a local or close community there is (or used to be) a sense of personal responsibility and control. As the emphasis shifts to a strictly global one, people lose the feeling of personal responsibility, feel helpless and then wait for someone else to do everything (or expect the government to). I think the biggest problems we now face are personal ones that no amount of legislation can fix.


    Comment by montucky — December 15, 2007 @ 9:30 am

  5. hmmm, cause for thought….

    we have volunteer fire stations throughout our area. I guess that there are “enough” volunteers; there was a new station built nearby recently. I have seen several men from our neighborhood wearing their volunteer firefighter shirts. we also have one recent high school graduate who is working to become a firefighter. (these are all city locations, nothing rural that I know about)

    glad you were finally able to put your thoughts down. I often have posts that I just cannot bring myself to print for others to read. Maybe one day when I “grow up”, eh?


    Comment by silken — December 15, 2007 @ 10:48 am

  6. silken,

    Yes, sometimes it’s tough to write about something without appearing to be just “ranting”. I finally decided there was a real point to be made with this one.

    Incidentally I just found out this morning that the town has found a new fire chief who has high hopes that he can attract some help. I sincerely hope he can!

    There are basic differences between a rural department and an urban one, mainly in the types of fires encountered and the type of equipment required as well as training. I greatly prefer the rural challenges, although a lot of the places around here are tough to even get to in the winter. In our meeting Thursday, one of the things we did was put tire chains on our large water tender.

    I’ve found it strange too that the town department had more problems because their challenges are narrower and more specific, and are concentrated into a small geographic area, where the rural department covers somewhere around 400 square miles.


    Comment by montucky — December 15, 2007 @ 11:15 am

  7. When I lived in a small Illinois town 30 years ago, there was a volunteer fire department there, and in many adjoining communities. In the days before blue lights were taken over by police, one saw the blue lights flashing on the roofs and dashboards of fire fighters responding at all hours of the day or night. Fresh out of the Navy where I had attended fire fighting school and had helped fight small fires aboard ship, I thought it would be great to join. Unfortunately, I worked 1.5 hours away from home and wasn’t very available.

    I haven’t thought much about it lately and when I did, I presumed that if there were any openings, they would go to people who have previously served as paid fire fighters or who had experience fighting fires in national parks and forests. How stict are the requirements? Is prior experience expected and/or is there a lot of training required that would be too strenuous for an old guy like me?

    It’s really sad about that town. One would almost think that, when comparing the difference between high insurance rates and the current rates, it would be cheaper to hire a paid chief and maybe an assistant. They could be the nucleus of a rebuilt department.



    Comment by knightofswords — December 17, 2007 @ 9:27 am

  8. Malcolm,

    I’m sure the requirements vary widely from area to area. Here they are very flexible, possibly because of desperation. They do not require experience and they do provide training, but so far that hasn’t been all that good. Most of the older guys, and there are only several of us, have experience in forest fire fighting, although in my case that was only one summer. We do have a requirement for, I think it is, 40 hours of training each year. There are few similarities though between fighting wildfires and structure fires (even the equipment if vastly different), so while wildfire experience does help, it doesn’t go far enough.

    I know with the paid departments physical training is a big issue, but it hasn’t been here with the Rural department. I also think the physical demand is far less here than it would be in a big city type of arena.

    As strange as it may seem, the biggest cause of death among firefighters by far is heart attacks, and that should pretty much be the major physical/age issue to consider for anyone joining a department, no matter what other qualifications they may want. In my case, with all the hiking I do, I’m fairly safe there.

    As part of our training last week we watched some videos about something fairly new in fire fighting and that’s fires in a wildland – urban interface. We have more and more of that type of thing around here and it’s a very sobering thing to address. It’s one thing to fight a forest fire, where at best what you try to do is pick a suitable spot and try to contain it there or make it stop when it gets there. It’s another thing entirely to attempt to defend a group of homes that were built in the wrong place and which are being threatened by a wall of fire 150 feet high burning through the forest. Even for the pros, that will require so much more training, different kinds of equipment and brand new tactics particularly in safety issues.

    This spring we will be doing a really gut-wrenching job. We are forming teams and we will analyze all of the homes in these woodland areas around here and mark on our maps, in case of a wildland fire which homes we think we can save and which ones we can’t! That’s a very necessary thing to do, but a very sobering thought!


    Comment by montucky — December 17, 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  9. Don’t you realize people are too busy to fight fires. Oh, but not too bust to watch 4 hours of TV a night or race around ruining natural beauty. Priorities. We need a big blackboard in the sky, reminding people what being a member of the world is all about. Keep the faith. One man can make a difference.

    Yes, another cynic, but a worried and concerned cynic…


    Comment by barbara — December 18, 2007 @ 5:10 am

  10. I’ll vote for that blackboard! You know, I was told that one of the reasons that is heard a lot by the guys trying to get volunteers is that our Rural Fire Department training meetings conflict with football games on TV. That blackboard needs to have a priority list on it!


    Comment by montucky — December 18, 2007 @ 8:51 am

  11. I wouldn’t be surprised if California departments have spent a lot of time looking at those interface issues as well as the job of deciding in advance where structures can probably be saved and where they can’t.

    Homeowner education is part of the equation. Steps can be taken to clear brush out of the yard and to reduce the amount of available tinder in wooded areas that are near the house.

    I don’t envy your department having to make such crucial, yet sad, decisions.



    Comment by knightofswords — December 19, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

  12. Yes, there has certainly been a lot of soul searching in southern California. Those interface issues are far more serious than it was ever thought they would be. Wouldn’t you hope the rest of us could learn from them?

    There has been some homeowner education here and some financial incentives as well, but we still see homes that just plain won’t make it through a big fire. One are is only a few miles from where I live. We have a 30,000 gallon cistern in the ground up there to help, but we know that if a large fore starts running through the forest there all we will be able to do is get out.


    Comment by montucky — December 19, 2007 @ 4:35 pm

  13. I too come from a small community (in rural Ontario Canada). The values of sharing, caring, and community activism is something that is passed on through generations of neighbours – mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – and can’t really be ‘instituted’ in my opinion. The social ‘error’ manifesting throughout most of North America is due, in large part, because we have increasingly CHOSEN to ‘isolate’ ourselves from our neighbours by alllowing our Selves to be lured into the cultivated fake world of endless greed and glamour of info-entertainment, a BIG BUSINESS INDUSTRY. Most know more about the intricacies of ‘PlayStation’ then they might their own nephew’s birthday…. In other words, if you want good neighbours, be a good neighbour….it all starts at home. As for the ‘anonymous rich’ in your area, approach them courteously with your concerns – it will take time, but I think you may find a EQUAL desire to participate in protecting and maintaining the great gifts we, as just another species on the planet, all share – Land, Air, Water, Sky. Keep at it. Cheers c


    Comment by canadada — December 29, 2007 @ 10:06 am

  14. canadada,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. You are more optimistic than I, but it does me good to see that. I think you’re certainly right though and the very least we can do is try.


    Comment by montucky — December 29, 2007 @ 11:43 am

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