USA — Lightning crackling across August-dry ranchland ignites grass cured to a golden brown.
Fire may smolder all night waiting for a chance to explode in the heat of the day. Chances are that locals are already on alert. They know the drill.
When a cloud of smoke billows from a distant hillside, the first calls come in to county dispatch. Pagers buzz in pockets of volunteer firefighters, summoning them to their stations.
And they always come. But there may be fewer firefighters on the trucks this summer than there were last season. Most of those clambering out of the cab at the scene of the fire will be another year older and a little less agile.
Like their counterparts from coast to coast, volunteer fire departments across Montana are struggling. They may have a garage full of vehicles and specialized equipment to handle every emergency, but are only able to raise two or three volunteers to answer the call.
Fewer people are joining volunteer departments, and in many departments, a majority of firefighters are in the 40-to-60 age range.
We’ve always been able to round up a crew and go out, said Petroleum County Fire Warden Dave Grantier of Winnett. We’re not at a critical point. But I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road.
The shortage of volunteers is already being felt in some communities, said Derek Yeager, fire program manager for Montana Department of National Resources and Conservation’s Southern Land Office in Billings.
On one fire last summer, three firefighters showed up from a local department and spent three days on a wildland fire with only local ranchers for assistance.
For other departments, there’s just nobody, he said. Then you end up calling the neighboring department.
There’s definitely a struggle going on out there people don’t know about, he said. People just think when they dial 911, somebody shows up.
Thanks to mutual aid agreements, firefighters from every nearby department will respond to assist a department in need of help. And when a wildland fire exceeds the capacity of local and county departments, state and federal resources are available.
But the key to making sure little fires don’t grow into monsters is the speed and weight of the initial attack, Yeager said.
If there are no people no volunteers the effect of the initial attack is certainly diminished, he said. There’s certainly been fires in the past that posed a danger to everybody because there were no firefighters.
Fire departments in Montana come in every form and size. Most cities with more than a few thousand residents have paid fire departments with a crew on duty 24/7. Some communities have combination departments staffed with both career firefighters and volunteers. Lockwood Fire and Rescue is one of those.
Some areas form tax-supported fire districts, while still others are non-profit departments that scramble to raise enough money to operate.
There are roughly 11,000 firefighters in 400 departments in Montana; all but about 550 of them are volunteers.
Without them, residents would either have to fend for themselves in emergencies or pay millions more for fire protection.
Montanans have always relied on volunteer fire departments, and for many in close-knit rural communities across the state, it was natural that one generation would follow the next on the department rolls.
It was a given that I would be a firefighter, said Kraig Hansen, volunteer fire chief in Chinook and vice chairman of the Montana Fire Chiefs Association’s volunteer section.
My dad was fire chief in Harlem and I joined right out of high school in 1978, he said.
Hansen was fire chief there before moving west down Highway 2 to Chinook, where he has been chief for the last 11 years.
My kids grew up in the fire station, he said. It was nothing to spend hours there. One thing I promote with my guys is, if you’re coming down here to work at the station, bring the kids.
But young people don’t stick as close to home as they once did. They go where jobs are, and for the most part, good jobs aren’t easy to come by in rural America.
Most of our guys are middle-aged, Hansen said of his 21-person department. We try to get younger guys while they’re in high school. But you just get them trained and they want to go to college.
Some come back and new people move to town to fill out the department ranks. But most of the new members don’t stay for the long haul.
There’s such a turnover, Hansen said. People come and they leave.
It isn’t that people are less willing to help, said Rich Cowger, chief of Columbus Fire and Rescue.
The newer generation is as community-minded as ever, he said. But they may not be here 20 years from now.
Cowger commands a combination department. He is a full-time paid fire chief for the town of Columbus and also a volunteer chief for a rural fire district of about 375 square miles. Forty volunteers handle fires, ambulance calls and just about every other emergency.
His department has no trouble attracting younger recruits. Many of them work for the Stillwater Mining Co. But other departments in Stillwater County are wondering what comes next.
The Reed Point Volunteer Fire Company, coping with an aging corps of volunteers and fundraising worries, is considering consolidating with the Columbus fire district.
We like what we do, said Raymond Ragsdale, chief of the Broadus Volunteer Fire Department. We’re volunteers. We help people when they need it. It’s giving back to my community. I enjoy living here and I want to keep my community safe.
But the volume of calls can become a burden on a small department.
Ragsdale said his 24-person department responded to about 30 calls last year a year with few wildfires. But in 2007, a bigger fire year, the Broadus department had twice that number.
Cowger said Columbus Fire and Rescue tallied more than 400 calls in 2010, up from 322 the year before.
As the number and variety of calls increases, so have training demands.
Most departments meet twice a month once to take care of planning and business, and once for training. Thirty hours of training a year is a pretty standard, although there are no state-mandated requirements.
Hester Jacobs, secretary-treasurer of the Melstone Volunteer Fire Department, said the Musselshell County organization has volunteers in the 18-to-20 age group.
Then we have a big gap in age until people get into their 50s, she said. Younger people aren’t willing to meet twice a month and put in the training time.
But when wildfire strikes, the whole community responds.
We have no lack of volunteers to come out to fight fires, Jacobs said. We don’t have a lack of bodies. We have a lack of trained bodies.
Grantier, of Winnett, says most of the 30 people on the Winnett roster are 40 or older, and it’s hard for younger firefighters to find time for the basic 16-hour wildland fire training course needed to participate or to make the monthly meetings.
That’s a lot of it, he said.
More calls and more training mean more time away from jobs and family.
It’s hard maintaining a volunteer department when people are working two or three jobs and when both mom and dad work, Cowger said.
One of the biggest obstacles for younger firefighters answering the call is what to do with their kids, he said. To deal with the problem, Columbus is considering ways to provide a centralized daycare possibly a drop-in arrangement with a local provider.
No one knows yet how to resolve challenges posed by shrinking numbers of volunteers, despite an ongoing conversation for the last 15 to 20 years. Some areas have created tax-supported fire districts. Others are consolidating with departments with more resources. A few will probably be deciding in the next few years if they can continue at all.
Each community will have to find its own solution, said Cowger, the Columbus chief. On the community level, they need to make a decision on what level of service they want. Accept that and move on.
Chinook’s Hansen predicts that volunteer fire departments will be around for a while.
But I can see where we’re going to have to start paying for calls, he said. I’m not sure these small counties can afford that.
Winnett’s Grantier has no doubts on that score.
There is no way the county could collect enough money to pay firefighters, he said.