The air shimmered with heat and smoke as two men, covered from head to toe in firefighting gear, gingerly stepped into the smoldering pile of ash where a house stood a few hours before.
Small flames poked like weeds from the ash as one of the firefighters descended out of view, dragging a hunter-orange stretcher. Blackened oak trees reached above the oven-like heat, smoke drifting between their gnarly branches like water between fingers.
By The Numbers
Volunteer Fire Departments In Northwest Arkansas
• Number of Departments: 20 in Washington County, 21 in Benton County
• Average Volunteers: Around 20
• Average Area: 38 square miles
• Typical Dues: $30-$80 per year for district residents
• Calls Per Year: Between roughly 100 and 1,000
Source: Staff Report
At A Glance
Want To Join A Department?
• Contact your district’s chief. You don’t need to have firefighting experience. Contact information can be found through the Washington County Department of Emergency Management at 479-444-1722 and through the Benton County Fire Marshal, 479-271-1004.
• Take training courses in general firefighting, Personal Protective Equipment and wildland firefighting through local departments, the state Fire Training Academy or other organizations. Departments offer training without charge.
• After the classes, you’re able to go to emergency scenes and qualify for workers’ compensation, but departments require continual training at meetings that typically happen twice a month.
Source: Staff Report
At A Glance
History Of Volunteering
The beginning of volunteer departments in the U.S. traditionally is set at 1736, when Benjamin Franklin helped establish Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company. The brigade is often called the nation’s first, but others had existed in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies before then, according to the National Fire Heritage Center in Maryland.
Franklin pushed for the department, the story goes, after a ship caught on fire near some of his warehouses. Soon afterward about two dozen men agreed to help protect each other from fires, motivating other brigades to form around the city. Departments continued to spread throughout the country and number around 25,000 today.
Source: Staff Report
Volunteers from West Fork, Prairie Grove and three other rural departments squeezed their hulking tanker trucks down a narrow gravel lane south of Greenland, past farm fields and angry dogs, toward the 100-yard column of white smoke. Hydrants don't reach much of Washington County; water for the fight must be carried in 3,000-gallon tanks.
The firefighters emerged from the home with the unrecognizable remains of Dale Cheatham, 62, who died of smoke inhalation, the State Crime Lab later found.
Firefighters retreated to where medics had passed out bottles of water and checked vitals throughout the afternoon. The fire faded, and the investigation into a cause began. The crews rolled out.
"They got there, kept it from spreading, cooled down the propane tank," said Washington County Fire Marshal Dennis Ledbetter, adding the investigation was inconclusive.
"They're dealt some cards the city's not," he said of the rural departments, pointing to the fire's remoteness and a late 911 call. "They did a good job."
Residents of Washington and Benton counties' metropolitan area, from Bella Vista to Fayetteville, are accustomed to career firefighters -- men and women paid to be on call 24 hours a day for accidents, house and grass fires, heart attacks and rescues. Just outside the major cities' borders, a close-knit community of roughly 800 people among 41 rural departments takes over.
Nearly all of these people are volunteers, carrying radios during the day and dropping their forks in the middle of dinner, as some of them like to say, when a call goes out. They earn workers' compensation coverage and little else.
The story of Northwest Arkansas' volunteer fire departments begins with their formation in the past 50 years to meet an important need. The departments have melded into a kind of extended family since, with brothers in neighboring departments and volunteers as de facto aunts and uncles for each other's children. The volunteer community today faces recruitment troubles, pushing it to find ways to respond to more emergencies with fewer people.
Northwest Arkansas' departments formed in the 1960s and '70s, many motivated by a specific incident. Elkins, for example, formed its department in 1964, the same year the town was incorporated. Before then, the town relied on Fayetteville's crews. One day they got to Elkins too late, and a home had been reduced to its foundation.
"We saved lots of foundations -- very few houses," joked Tommy Atha, a former Elkins department chief who joined the department with his father and grandfather. "After that, they got to talking."
Karen Atha, Tommy's wife, helped form the Fire Belles, a civic group that held book sales, yard sales, "just anything we could" to raise money for a station and truck, she said. They eventually wrangled $2,000 for a 1946 Ford pumper truck that held enough water for about a minute of hosing. All of the households in town had a key, she said.
Volunteer firefighting has come a long way since. About 25,000 fire departments in the United States are mostly or completely volunteer, according to the national fire association, outnumbering career departments 5 to 1. Trucks these days haul 10 times the water and cost 100 times the money.
About 900 departments serve the state, including the 41 in Northwest Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Rural and Volunteer Firefighters Association. Each has about 20 members, though some reach into the 30s. They're sustained by donations, money from the state, Washington and Benton counties and membership dues. Dues are usually between $30 and $80 per year and are tacked onto property taxes for about half of the local districts.
Together, the departments respond to thousands of emergency calls each year. Most calls are medical, such as traffic accidents and heart attacks, rather than fire-related. The area's rising population means a complementary swell in calls, firefighters said.
"I would say 85 percent of our calls are anything but fire. We say 'wow' a lot," said Marc Trollinger, Benton County fire marshal and chief for the Hickory Creek Department in the county's southeast. "From time to time, we get a call about a cat in a tree. The fire department's everybody's go-to department, if you think about it."
Most departments are dispatched after 911 calls reach Central EMS in Washington County and Central Communications, or CENCOM, in Benton County.
Volunteers come from every background, with many working as mechanics, farmers, handymen and emergency responders such as police officers, medics or even professional firefighters in one of the city departments.
"Sometimes you're on call no matter what you're doing, no matter where you are," said Mary Hutchcraft, whose husband, Josh, is a member of the Elkins department. She and dozens of volunteers and family members gathered in June for the department's 50th anniversary dinner of fried chicken and fixings.
During a recent outing at Hickory Creek on Beaver Lake, Hutchcraft said, a man gashed his leg open on a pontoon. Her husband, also a medic, patched him up before the ambulance arrived.
As if to illustrate Hutchcraft's point further, two volunteers suddenly left the dinner, summoned by their jobs at a police department.
A house fire alert woke Round Mountain volunteers, whose department straddles Arkansas 16 between Fayetteville and Elkins, after nightfall a few years ago. Among them was David Silva, who had been married to his wife, Lori, for a month.
Ice fell from the sky as he and the others hurried through 9 inches of snow to get the trucks from the station. Then they slid down the winding, slick roads to the burning house, driving with a combination of caution and flat-out urgency emergency responders know well. They found the fire inside a small cabin that had been used as the core for a larger house, making it difficult to reach the flames.
"It was one of those nights you're thinking, 'Really?'" chimed in fellow volunteer Brian Reagan.
The fight became an hours-long ordeal as the snow continued to fall, with Lori Davis waiting and stressing at home.
"It's funny now," she said, but she cried with worry at the time. Her husband and the other volunteers returned safely, though, and Lori Davis made sure she never worried alone again: She joined the department.
The three volunteers recounted the tale during one of the department's training meetings in June. Departments typically meet twice a month to learn and relearn how to wield powerful water hoses, set 30-foot ladders and other particulars of firefighting.
Volunteer firefighting often becomes a family affair. Every member seems to be another's sibling or cousin or childhood friend. Shane Wood, for example, is chief for the Round Mountain Department. His brother, Nathan, is chief in Goshen. His father, Ron Wood, was chief before him. Some families, including the Athas in Elkins, are approaching their sixth generation of firefighters.
"Shane, my youngest -- he grew up in here," Ron Wood said during a June training at one of Round Mountain's two stations. "Just like that one," he added, pointing to Shane's 8-year-old son, Christian, who was running around in flip-flops wearing a fireman costume and an old firefighter helmet.
Ron Wood joined the department when it started in 1977, "a dry year," he said. He works for the county these days as buildings and grounds superintendent, but he still teaches newer members how to tie intricate ladder knots and other skills.
"I love fighting fire," he said. "It's hard to lay down."
Mardy Reed, the only woman in the Wesley Volunteer Fire Department in Madison County, said she joined after watching her father and other family members fight fires in Elkins for years.
"I was always proud -- I was so proud. I guess I wanted to make them proud of me, for doing something they loved and took so much honor in," she said during Elkins' anniversary dinner. She pointed to stories of babies delivered and lives saved and teared up even as she smiled. "I'm just one of them. It's a family. That's all there is to it."
The kinship carries to first-generation fighters. The urge just hit J.D. Hatten of Goshen one day five years ago, the former bricklayer said during a joint training exercise with Round Mountain.
Bob House of Northeast Benton County, or NEBCO, said the work was an extension of his handyman service.
"It's the same with firefighting -- you get to help people," he said during a fundraising breakfast for the department earlier this month. He served food during the event, dropping biscuits on plates with one hand and ladling out thick, steaming milk gravy with the other as hundreds of area residents filed past.
The sunset's light glinted one July evening through the broad windows of the Morrow Country Store, the biggest attraction in the quiet town of a few hundred people in southwest Washington County. Pizza, ice and farm tools sat in their display cases and shelves.
Fire Chief Jeff Winningham, wearing a crimson Louis' Garage shirt, work boots and a thin, gray mustache, finished a chat with two other men and left for the department's training meeting.
When he joined in the 1980s, the department had close to 30 members, Winningham said at the station a block away from the store. Now there are 14.
"It costs my guys money to be a volunteer," he said. "Sometimes you don't even get thank yous."
Some departments in Northwest Arkansas are struggling with lower numbers despite steady or growing populations. Morrow makes do with half its previous people. Lincoln and Cincinnati's departments in western Washington County merged because of a lack of numbers, as did Hickory Creek and Pleasure Heights in southern Benton County.
"It's not what it used to be," said Trollinger, the Benton fire marshal and chief of the department. Together they used to have 40 people; now there are 16.
It's the same across the state, said Kendall Snyder, fire coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. Reports in The Associated Press, The New York Times and other outlets paint similar pictures in New York, Missouri, Nebraska and other states as well.
About 783,000 people volunteered in 2012, according to the national fire association, down about 7 percent from the peak in 1995. Similar statistics aren't available for Arkansas, according to the Department of Emergency Management, but everyone agreed many departments are suffering.
"People aren't the same as they used to be," said Shane Wood, echoing virtually every chief and volunteer interviewed. "Too many baseball games and basketball games or whatever else."
Many pointed to the training demands as part of the problem. Prospective volunteers must complete training courses on firefighting, equipment use and woodland fighting, then go to the training meetings twice a month or more, which can add up to hundreds of hours per year.
"Recruiting's probably our toughest thing -- this job's not for everybody," said Rich Louth, Goshen's training captain. "It's a juggling act."
Besides the time commitment, volunteering is tough on its participants and their families, said John Luther, emergency director for Washington County and chief of the Wedington department west of Fayetteville. Fighters see trauma and pain and death and depend on each other for support, Luther and others said.
"To this day, my mom wants me to tell her what's going on in the call before I leave," said Luther, who joined when he was 16 -- the minimum age has since been raised to 18. "Families make sacrifices."
Departments have at least three tools to make up for lost numbers: helping each other, paying one or two people to be on staff during the day and selling themselves to recruits as real-life training for future professional careers.
Both counties are crisscrossed by mutual aid agreements, wherein bordering departments agree to respond to each other's calls. The major cities generally help all departments along their borders.
The Beaver Lake department east of Rogers is among the dozens that depend on the agreements, Chief Mark Finocchio said. His 19 volunteers can reliably respond after work hours, he said, but during the day, "it's truly unpredictable. It could be one person, it could be 10 people, it could be the entire department."
Beaver Lake also is working to expand those agreements to form an ambulance service district. NEBCO and Benton County's cities provide most ambulance service. In recent months, the county has tried to take on the costs of rural ambulance duties, but has been unable to persuade voters to provide the money.
Many of the aid agreements were formed in the last decade or so, said Luther, who has seen the improvement in departments' cooperation firsthand. It was 1978, before Luther started firefighting, when he came home from a 4-H Thanksgiving banquet to find a note on the door to his garage saying his grandparents' house had caught fire. He hurried over.
"We stood in the yard and watched Johnson and Wheeler and Wedington" fight the fire, Luther said. But they weren't used to working together, and while they did their best, the home was lost, except for his grandmother's recipe book.
"The pain didn't stop when they put the fire out," Luther said. "Today ... I think that fire would've had a very different outcome."
Finocchio and some other chiefs are paid full time. Several departments recently have begun paying to keep at least one person on staff during the day, someone who can always respond to calls, Luther and others said.
Finally, departments entice young people to volunteer by promising experience to boost applications to career departments. Among such volunteers is Mike Brown, who began training with Round Mountain at the beginning of the summer.
"To get more experience and just kind of add onto the resume, I guess you could say -- and it's fun," said Brown, who recently graduated from the University of Arkansas and was near the top of the list for Fayetteville Fire's next hires. "It's dangerous, the hours are great, it's a civil service job and you get to give back to the community."
Other departments are holding steady, such as NEBCO and Nob Hill in both counties' northeast corners. Both have near 40 members, easily among the counties' largest.
Whatever their fortunes, the departments continue to work on, Luther and Trollinger said.
Volunteer departments cost a fraction of professional departments, even with government assistance, Luther noted. Washington County budgeted about $765,000 for all of the departments in 2014, enough for just two or three fire trucks. Benton County budgeted a comparable amount.
"That is a drop in the bucket of what the cost would be," Luther said, pointing to additional savings for residents through lower fire insurance, or ISO, ratings.
Even Morrow, the Washington County department with half of its former membership, is working to improve, said Winningham. A few years ago, the departments ISO rating was 9, near the top of the scale and expensive for homeowners.
Volunteers agreed to meet and train every Monday for two years, eventually bringing the rating down to a 6, potentially saving hundreds of dollars a year for homeowners. A new, customized truck was their reward.
Winningham pulled out a stuffed bear from the truck, which firefighters will give to children affected by accidents or fires. Someone -- he's not sure who -- drops off a bag of stuffed animals every six months.
"It is a small community," Winningham said, "and the community supports me, too."
NW News on 09/14/2014