Remembering small-town fire departments and the battles they've fought

Remembering small-town fire departments and the battles they’ve

With Jan Dona

The Write Team

CARLINVILLE (Aug. 31, 2017) – Recently, someone posted a photo on Facebook that got me thinking about a group of people that exist in just about every small town.

The photo was from the late 70s and featured a group of men, most of whom were in red jackets with very official-looking caps and badges. These men were members of a volunteer fire department. This small group of fire fighters could have been from any small town in this country. There are people everywhere, every day, who volunteer to keep us safe. When their pagers go off and the sirens sound, they drop what they are doing — many while working their regular jobs — and race to do a job for which they are not paid. It’s a difficult job. It’s a dangerous job. In fact, I can’t imagine a job that is more miserable, dirty and overwhelming than that of a fireman. It takes a special person to do that sort of work full time. It also takes a special kind of person to do it for free.

What many don’t realize is our volunteer firefighters don’t play by ear. They are trained. There’s not a single volunteer fire department I’ve ever heard of that takes training lightly. From entrapments to extractions, farm implements, school buses — I’ve seen our local fire fighters train for them all.

The recent fire at Country Classic Cars near Staunton brought back a few memories for me. The most obvious memory is that of the Coliseum fire in July 2011. That fire was enormous and very emotional for many in this area.

Several stores in Gillespie’s business district burned back in 1975. I think I was in about sixth grade and I remember it was winter and I woke up that night to find everyone in my house gone because they were all on the corner watching downtown burn. I recall looking out the windows at the front of the house and seeing the sky turn bright orange. I remember going to the Civic Center the next day and serving soup, sandwiches and coffee to the men fighting the blaze. The men in the photograph were the ones who worked that fire.

Staunton, Benld and Gillespie aren’t the only communities to have suffered big fires over the years. More recently, Bunker Hill lost a couple of buildings on its main drag. While the flames may not have shot as far into the sky, the loss to the community has been equally as great.

Carlinville will soon mark the 30th anniversary of the high school fire. It was Sept. 13, 1987, when that grand old building was ruined by fire. In fact, in next week’s edition of the Macoupin County Enquirer-Democrat, there will be a story by local historian Tom Emery, recalling that significant day. It was a huge ordeal for Carlinville, as such a loss would be for any town.

Fires that big are rare in this area, thank goodness, but one sure thing when such a catastrophe happens is our small-town fire departments. We rely on them and they rely on each other. Whether the fire is big or small, firemen in the surrounding towns respond when assistance is requested and they back each other up. During these times, small-town rivalries are put aside to fight the elements and save whatever can be saved and protect all that should be protected.

As I look at the photo, I see the faces of many who were at or past retirement age when the photo was taken, but they still kept protecting their community. These men are gone now and the young ones in the photo are at or past retirement age today, but several still show up when their pagers go off. Maybe they make the coffee. Maybe they stand by and wait for a call for additional equipment. Maybe they just like hanging around the fire house. The reasons why they joined the fire department have never left them. It’s a part of them and they are a part of us. Bless them.