Compared to the devastating Rock House Fire three and half years ago, the Tri-County area has had a relatively quiet fire season in 2013. With Fire Prevention Week kicking off today in local Marfa schools, KRTS checked in with the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department.
When fire breaks out in Presidio County, residents rely on volunteers to put it out. And they’re not alone. In Texas, 77 percent of fire departments are all-volunteer. But, this isn’t your regular volunteer gig.
“Well, obviously, our first responsibility is to deal with fire and emergencies. These emergencies can cover things like a train derailment or what we call a 10-50 (in ten-talk parlance, it’s an accident).”
Paul Van Tine is the training leader for the Marfa VFD. He’s been involved with the department for over ten years.
“For me – this was a way to serve the community and serve the community in an extremely vital way – this is a dangerous business”, says Paul.
In decades past, there was a waiting list to join the fire department in Marfa – and the department itself was divided into two companies. Since then, interest in joining has tapered off – currently, with around twenty active members, its ten people under the ideal number of firefighters. Recently, however, there have been some new recruits.
Local resident and writer Rachel Monroe on why she joined the VFD: “Before I moved to Marfa I had been reading a lot about fires and firefighters. I got kind of obsessed with it for a little while. There’s a really good book by Norman Maclean called Young Men and Fire – and even though I’m not a young man, I just found it really compelling. I was talking about it all the time with my friends and being really annoying about it. Then, when I realized I was going to move here, I was like ‘Oh! I could join the fire department.'”
Sam Schonzeit, a local artist, designer and teacher, on why he joined the department: “I was driving with a friend around town and we witnessed a small grass fire by the Dollar General. We called it in and the fire department came. They were spraying it out with their backpack hoses and stomping on it and I went out and stomped on the fire. It was really fun and I remembered that I wanted to do this for quite some time and here it was. And it wasn’t that hard to join. The next week I went to a meeting and said I wanted to sign up.”
Rachel and Sam are two firefighters who joined the department around a year ago. Each new recruit goes through a probation period of one year. That probation period was recently doubled – to emphasize the long-term commitment of joining. With trainings, gear and mentorship, recruiting a new firefighter is a big investment. But, where does that cash flow come from?
Paul explains, “When push comes to shove the dept just pretty much depends on itself. Our big, beautiful, red pumper cost well over $100,000. There is no City money in that, there is no County money in that, there is no State money in that, there is no Federal. The VFD flipped hamburgers, ran dances, did all kinds of various things to earn the money. When they were within $15,000 of the end of the goal a local rancher kicked in the remaining amount. So, when people see this pumper, either doing what its designed to do, or in one of the parades, or one of the various things we use it for in town, it’s important to know that the people of Marfa paid for that.”
Many donations to the fire department come through the City of Marfa – if Marfa residents look at their utility bill, they’ll see a check box to donate to the Marfa VFD. Rachel elaborates on what that gets them.
“All the fire fighters have pagers, and those pagers are tuned into the dispatch system here in town. When there’s a call that needs the fire department – which could either be a fire, or we also respond to car accidents – a page goes out and it’s this special tone. Once you hear the tone on your pager you’re think, ‘uh oh, might have to go do something’. Unlike EMS, they have to respond every time because they are the only ones doing it, but for the fire department those of us who can respond, have the time or the ability to do so at that time, you just kind of run out the door and try and get to the station as quickly as possible. So, you throw your gear on and jump in a truck with whoever is there.”
Luckily, says Paul, it’s been a quiet fire season this year. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re out of the woods.
Paul elaborates, “We’ve been very lucky. Part of that is that so much got burned up in 2011. There just wasn’t a heck of a lot left to burn. We’ve also been luck in that the weather patterns that have come through here have not been conducive to large-scale wild land fires. But, this has been a recovery year for a lot of the range out here. Even though we haven’t had a record amount of rain, we’ve had a consistent and well-spaced amount of rain. So, as you look, especially between here and Fort Davis, the grass is pretty thick, its pretty high, it’s pretty rich. So, it’s laying a fuel basis for what could be a much more active fire season in 2014.”
The Marfa Volunteer Fire Department leads Fire Prevention Week activities at local schools today on the theme of “Preventing Kitchen Fires”.