TEXT AND PHOTOS BY DAVID WELTON
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
July 13, 2016
Have you ever wondered how water is delivered to a rural fire, far from the source, with no hydrants nearby?
Actually, “pumper” trucks are the first to depart a fire station and they’re always ready to roll, loaded with a thousand gallons of water—a fraction of the amount required to extinguish a house fire. The massive tanker trucks quickly follow with 2,800 gallons.
The South Whidbey Fire Department has two new tanker beauties, based at the Clinton and Maxwelton stations. Each machine has a complicated instruction manual to match the $350,000 price tag. Volunteer firefighters enthusiastically attended the first training session after the first truck arrived in April, learning how to adjust the various gauges, knobs and nozzles; they put it to use just a few days later at a barn fire near Ken’s Corner.
A collapsible 3,000-gallon portable swimming pool, stored on the tanker, is deployed next to the pumper and can be filled in five minutes. The depleted tankers then race back to the source for more water while the pumper sprays the fire.
The National Fire Protection Association estimates that almost 70% of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers. Volunteers don’t earn any wages, but they’re reimbursed for certain expenses and—on the south end of Whidbey—receive retirement benefits.
The fire department pays for training at the firefighting academy and a level-one firefighter certificate can lead to a full-time professional position. Male and female applicants must be over the age of 18 and be in “reasonable physical condition.” Volunteers can also receive training to become Emergency Medical Technicians. Weekly drill and training sessions help volunteers maintain and enhance skills and, periodically, buildings slated for demolition are provided for “practice fires.”
There are over 45-50 volunteers in the South Whidbey Fire Department and they responded to over 2,000 calls last year. The department was founded in 1950 and also employs a few professional full-time firefighters in administrative positions.
Tom Peterson, a circuit board designer at an engineering firm near Boeing, is Captain of Maxwelton Station 33 and has been with the department for over 21 years. “I always wanted to become a fireman,” Peterson said, adding that he played with Tonka fire trucks as a child. “The South Whidbey Fire Department feels the same as a winning team,” he said, recalling his high school football squad. “I know we have the right [skills and] tools to help people out.”
And, Peterson noted, if he’s the first person to arrive at the station when called, “I get to drive the fire truck.”
Terry Welch, a Coupeville Middle School science and math teacher, had a first-hand experience fighting a wildfire while working for the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho. Always drawn to community service, she answered the call for volunteers in the wake of 9/11. She now specializes in marine rescue and firefighting, using the new firefighting boat based at the Langley marina. Some structures on the shoreline are more easily accessed from the water, she mentioned, and the boat is equipped with a water gun that pumps seawater. She’s always been accepted, she said, and has never had to prove herself to her male peers; firefighters are “ohana,” an ancient Hawaiian term for extended family.
The biggest reward, firefighters always note, is the respect and gratitude of the community. Joe Menth recalls the wildfire that threatened his home near Double Bluff Road on July 3 last year. “I was at work when I got the phone call and immediately headed home,” he said. Highway 525 was blocked so he took side roads. “Once we were home we could only watch while we awaited the evacuation notice. The wall of flames and smoke crept closer. Had the fire burned another 20 feet or so across the adjacent property, it would have ripped across the grass field next to our house, with a clear path for the flames to our front door.”
The experience of helping Menth and others like him—saving lives and protecting property in a way most people won’t experience—is more than sufficient compensation for the volunteer firefighters and EMTs of Whidbey Island.
Candidates may apply online or at department headquarters.
Image at top: Heroic volunteer firefighters of Whidbey Island combat the firestorms.
David Welton is a retired physician and staff photographer for Whidbey Life magazine.
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