HAMILTON – Marc Snavely’s 36 hours without sleep began with a pie.
Darby’s volunteer fire chief was one of many who jumped out of bed at 3:30 a.m. last Tuesday morning to respond to the call from a home fully engulfed in smoke.
Once they arrived on the scene, the volunteer firefighters put on their ventilators and went inside for a look.
“We didn’t see any flames anywhere,” Snavely said. “I took out our thermal imager and began to search through the house. When I panned over by the stove, it lit up like Christmas tree.”
When the firefighter looked inside, he found the pie the family had put in to bake about five hours earlier.
“It looked like a giant charcoal sitting in there,” Snavely said.
Twenty minutes after the fire chief got home and had slipped back into bed, his pager rang again. This time, it was a call from the ambulance crew to help load a 283-pound man.
He just got back to bed when the ice storm hit.
Over the course of the night and into the next day, the volunteer firefighters would respond to 22 calls – mostly downed power lines with a few vehicle accidents scattered about.
Snavely will tell you that’s not a normal 36 hours for his team of volunteers.
What it does show is the dedication of the men and women throughout the Bitterroot Valley who drop everything when the fire alarm rings and run to the aid of their neighbors.
Hamilton Fire Chief Brad Mohn has seen demand for the services of local volunteers grow dramatically over the 25 years that he’s served.
“When I came on in 1989, we probably averaged about 160 to 165 calls a year,” Mohn said. “Last year, we had 250. So far this year, we’re at 232.”
The Hamilton area – just like the rest of the Bitterroot – has grown and that’s put more demand on emergency services in general.
Currently, the Hamilton Fire Department operates with 25 volunteers. Ideally, Mohn said that number would be closer to 30.
“Twenty-five years ago, we had a waiting list of people who wanted to volunteer,” he said. “Today, we get one or two applications a year. ... I think a lot of people now have to work more than one job to make ends meet. Life is generally busier for many.”
Once people step forward and join, they usually stay.
For Snavely, it’s the camaraderie with his fellow volunteers that’s kept him coming back for 17 years.
This year, Snavely was ready to step away if someone else was elected as fire chief.
“I told my wife that night that if that happened, I was really going to miss being around these guys and doing the stuff we do,” he said. “I was in the Marine Corps for four years. I know what camaraderie means. They take it serious. They are friends who will do anything for you, just like in the Corps.”
Corvallis Fire Chief Jim Knapp said that most people volunteer because they want to be able to give something back to their communities, but the reason they stay is often more complicated.
For some, it’s the adrenaline rush that comes with fighting fire. Others like being part of a close-knit organization that does a lot of good in the community. Many in Corvallis have also taken advantage of job training opportunities and education that can help in their private lives as well as the community.
“We try to develop mutually beneficial relations with our volunteers,” Knapp said. “Being a volunteer can be costly. We’re thankful that our volunteers really love what they do.”
The department helps out by paying mileage and adding an extra $1,000 to their retirement funds every year.
Because it answers calls for fires, vehicle accidents and medical assistance, Corvallis is one of the busiest fire districts in the county. On average, volunteers respond to 400 calls a year. About 70 percent of those are medical calls.
Currently, Corvallis Fire has about 50 volunteers.
“You have to have a lot of people to keep volunteers from burning out when you have that many calls,” Knapp said. “We’ve been fortunate that our numbers stay steady. They provide a great service at virtually no cost to the community.”
Knapp said the Corvallis Fire Department has been fortunate to be able to develop a cadet program that works with high school students interested in learning about firefighting.
“At that age, their minds are moving so fast,” he said. “Some absolutely fall in love with the group environment and firefighting.”
The high school recently recognized four cadets with its annual community service award.
“It’s just a huge deal to be able to get into the schools,” Knapp said. “Not every kid wants to go to college. We can provide EMT training that could lead to them becoming a paramedic making better than average wages.”
Mohn said anyone interested in serving as a volunteer firefighter should make the call to their local fire chief to get more information.
“It is a huge commitment, but at the same time, it’s a very rewarding thing to do,” Mohn said. “You do come away with a great sense of accomplishment when you are able to help your neighbors at a time of need.”