Column: 'We didn’t (try to) start the fire': Our unsung heroes, volunteer firefighters
We talk a lot in our world about the unsung heroes, but maybe no one is less sung than firefighters, particularly our volunteer firefighters, and maybe y’all didn’t know this, but that’s all we got.
I think there’s a misconception that when towns and counties hit a certain size they are automatically gifted with all the services we’ve grown up seeing on the TV: police, fire, ambulance, etc. It would make sense: the more people in an area, a greater rise in the need for those services, and so a magic governmental wand must be waved and *poof*, permanent services with full-time staff created!
Well that’s not the case with any of the good services we have here in Jackson County, but it's most definitely not the case when it comes to our fire services. Sure, you see their station houses dotting our landscape, but those stations, even the ones in Ripley and Ravenswood, are manned by volunteers, and volunteers alone. There’s not a paid firefighter in the county, just a few brave souls willing to go through the training and be always on call, and the most they get out of it is thanks from the traumatized owner of a burned-out establishment. And oftentimes not even that, even though Lord knows they deserve more because we are a fire-loving culture, and for some reason, some of our brains go right up in smoke at the same moment that first pile of kindling is lit.
Don’t act like I’m not talking to you. If I were to do a poll of the outside feature most prevalent in the homes of most of the county it would be “fire pit.” Now some of those pits are the real deal: metal or stone, with real design work behind them, with fancy iron tools like a tiny shovel which shovels a handful of ash at best, a thing you’re supposed to use to break up coals but mostly looks like a future murder weapon, and then those jaws-looking things that you use to move burning wood but mostly just hang on the tools hook. A fancy fire pit, just perfect for taking Instagram pictures.
For most of us, our “fire pit” is the bit of burnt-out semi-circle on the edge of the yard, which in the summer is surrounded by the cheapest lawn chairs that can be bought at Walmart or moved off the front porch. If you happened upon some bricks from a knocked-down house, maybe it has a brick border, but mostly you just kind of watch the fire and eyeball when you think the burned wood is getting too close to good green grass. Not that you worry too much about it — if a burning stick gets too close to the edge, someone will either kick it back into place or move it with the nearest non-burning stick. We are simple creatures, we Mountaineers.
It's not summer and fall if there’s not a bonfire going somewhere in this county. Heck, that’s how I know it's really fall: because the winds kick up and I can smell fires from three hollows away. And if you don’t spend at least one evening in June/July/August sitting around a fire at 10 at night with a drink in your hand and your buddies all around you, did you really even have a summer? Not to mention that now that West Virginia has lifted all their fireworks restrictions, everyone is a Disney World-level pyrotechnic expert. It won’t be many more weeks before you’ll be seeing colored sparks in the air on a Tuesday for no other reason than someone got a good deal on a box of “the good stuff.”
I am actually amazed that given the firebug that lives in our collective JCO DNA that we haven’t had a massive wildfire break out, although we have to thank a few things for that: one, weather patterns that leave us more wet than dry and without the fire-spreading winds of the west; and two, that everyone apparently had it drummed in at very young ages that you don’t *really* play with fire. Yeah, you might build that bonfire up to where the flames are 10 feet in the air, and yeah, every one of us has held up a flaming stick in our best imitation of being a cave man, but at least one person in your crew always stays responsible enough to make sure the fire is out before everyone leaves for the night (and admonishes the Cave Man to put his stick back).
We take burning laws seriously, and it's because we all know that if a fire happens in the country, unless you have your own giant hose and a really good well, it’ll take time to get the firetrucks to you. That’s just the nature of living in the country.
Having your out-of-control fires tended to by volunteers is actually just the nature of living in a rural area, even if that rural area includes to two medium-sized towns. There are a handful of full-time fire departments, and 400-plus volunteer departments, covering the entire state of West Virginia, 24,000 square miles, on which a fire could pop up anywhere, and the odds of someone seeing it while it's still manageable are slim to nill. Those volunteer departments are made up of people who work a full-time job, but keep a beeper handy if an emergency comes up, seven days a week. And not just fires, but any kind of emergency where a trained volunteer may be needed. If they’ve got the skills, they’re getting the call.
I don’t think I’ve made it unclear that I am not a fan of people who complain while making no effort to fix the thing they’re complaining about. The so-called “keyboard warriors,” who always have something to say on Facebook about anything bad that happens in this county and are just dying to give everyone not only their analysis of the situation (which they’ve made based on posted pictures and hearsay) but also their suggestions on what could have been done better (these suggestions coming from their Google-assisted expertise). And when bad things happen, out come the keyboard warriors, with no thought as to how their words sound to the very people who have just spent a harrowing amount of time trying to diffuse a bad situation.
Fires happen, and in a county as rural as ours, they’re going to happen most often in out-of-the-way places that you can’t get a normal vehicle to in a goodly amount of time, let alone a firetruck. Fires happen, and they happen in the middle of downtown Ripley and Ravenswood, and they have be taken care of by people who have to drive in from their day jobs to handle them, and those day jobs could be anywhere. Fire happens, and once it's taken hold, once all the perfect fire-making conditions are met, it wouldn’t matter if the actual fire station was burning: Once fire happens, all you can do is do your very best to beat it back. And the red line between the people of the JCO and the fires that could consume everything we love is made up of volunteers.
Maybe someday we’ll have full-time firefighters in the county, but let us always be grateful to the volunteers we have now, who handle with bravery the terrible calamities that life throws at us, and with good grace the accidents that we, as fallible people in our community, commit. Life throws us all curveballs — some of fire, some of ice, some we can’t control and some of our own making — and we’re just lucky to live in a community where people still want to spend their free time helping those who need it.
And to our volunteer firemen, always remember this saying, “You’ll never be criticized by people doing more than you; only by those doing less.” Thanks for always doing more for us; maybe one day, we can do more for you.