Rural firefighting is in family’s blood

Rural firefighting is in family’s blood

01 December 2013

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USA — or more than two decades, four generations of the same family have been heeding the call of volunteer fire duty in the tiny desert community of Shelter Valley.

Twelve miles east of Julian, but thousands of feet below on the desert floor, the Shelter Valley Volunteer Fire Department is a Sanders/Bennett business.

In 1990, Jerry Sanders, now 82, moved with his wife, Mary, to the out-of-the-way community after retiring as a biology professor. He didn’t know anything about firefighting, but joined what was then the all-volunteer department. He became chief seven years later and Mary handled the paperwork.

Over the next 20 years, the couple’s daughter, Christy, and her husband, Steve Branch, would join the fire department. Then Christy’s daughter Jennifer moved to the community of about 400 full-time residents with her new husband, Kevin Bennett. They both signed up and Kevin is now the chief.

The Bennetts’ two sons — Noah, 13, and Sam, 15 — are also helping with all sorts of firefighting duties. Although they aren’t old enough to officially be firefighters, the work is in their blood, according to their great-grandfather.

“At the height, there were 22 volunteer firefighters in Shelter Valley and about three-quarters of them were relatives,” Sanders said.

Mary and Christy have since passed away and Steve no longer lives in Shelter Valley. But at one time, three generations of Sanderses, Branches and Bennetts worked calls together.

“And it wasn’t just them,” said Sam Bennett. “We had aunts and uncles and cousins and distant relations.”

“If you’re a relative, get a helmet,” Kevin Bennett said.

A few years back the county took control of most volunteer departments, implementing stringent physical and training requirements. Shelter Valley and many other volunteer departments lost most of their firefighters as a result.

Though he’s no longer the chief, Sanders still proudly wears his uniform and is a fixture at the station. Kevin Bennett is the chief and Jennifer Bennett still works as an EMT firefighter. The Bennett boys have been raised in the fire community and have done just about everything.

“They’ve been training dummies their entire lives,” Jennifer Bennett said. A few years back, when Noah was 10, the department conducted a drill and Noah played a fall victim lying on the ground next to the jungle gym in his backyard.

He wound up telling the training firefighters what to do.

“I said you need to call in air, you need to get a medic out here,” Noah remembers.

“He told them they needed to support his neck and get a (cervical) collar,” said his mom, Jennifer.

In the past year, three fires have threatened parts of the huge Shelter Valley department’s jurisdictional area, which encompasses about 500 square miles. When evacuations were ordered, the Bennett boys rode their bicycles around town helping people load their animals into trailers.

The Shelter Valley fire department gets between 150 and 160 calls a year. About 70 percent of them are medical-related: neighbors having heart attacks or having fallen, for example. The service area includes 48 miles of county Highway S-2 (also known as the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849) and 13 miles of state Route 78 from the base of Banner Grade to the turn north toward Borrego Springs.

“We cover massive portions of the Anza-Borrego Desert,” Kevin Bennett said.

Many of the most traumatic calls over the years have been accidents along the highways.

“In my early days, this was a main artery for sneaking in illegals and whenever they got in trouble the driver would always drive like hell,” Sanders said. “We had at least four mass casualties, probably more than any other volunteer department.

“My first was four dead on scene and 17 injured,” he said. “The injured were riding in the back of a pickup truck.”

Why has the family taken volunteer firefighting to heart?

“A lot of people don’t do it so I guess we’re in a special group,” Sanders said. “The people who volunteer put all their effort and time into it and feel good about what they’re doing.”

“As a fireman, every time you walk through a door you know they are happy to see you, that they need your help,” Kevin Bennett said.

“For our family it’s a blessing to know how to help other people,” said Jennifer Bennett.

Sanders said all the neat stuff that comes with the job is part of the allure.

“You get to blow the siren,” he said.

“There is that draw,” Kevin Bennett agreed with a smile. “You get the big red firetrucks, you get all the fancy tools. You get to do things at the fire station and wear the uniform. There is that draw. But ultimately it’s a job that has to get done. And if we are able to do it, well that’s what we should do. You’re supposed to help your neighbor.”

Today the Shelter Valley department, under the control of the San Diego County Fire Authority, is staffed 24 hours a day by trained volunteer firefighters who, with the exception of the Bennetts, are from all over the county. The mostly young volunteers — who are technically called “reserve” firefighters — are paid a stipend and work for the authority at various volunteer departments in hopes that the experience will eventually lead to full-time firefighting positions somewhere.

“But we’ve kept it a family affair,” Jennifer Bennett said. “When the guys come onto the station we still consider them family. “We have Christmas here and Thanksgiving dinner with the china and the flowers.”

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