Written by Maureen Walling —
MADERA COUNTY — When disaster strikes, be it fire, accident or a medical emergency, we all count on our firefighters to be there in minutes to render aid. But what happens if the nearest fire station has no one available to respond? What if the station in your area is closed because there are no volunteers to staff it?
This is the stark reality faced by residents of Eastern Madera County, and only those residents can do something about it.
The Madera County Fire Department continues to suffer a serious lack of volunteers, known as Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs), and now is the time to step up and join the ranks of those invaluable first responders.
The County is now recruiting PCFs, with training scheduled to being in mid-October. If you have ever considered serving your community as one of the heroes who respond to the call, don’t let this opportunity go by.
With a large percentage of Madera County’s PCFs looking toward a career in the fire service, they move on to Cal Fire, city fire departments or the U.S. Forest Service when opportunity presents itself. That leaves those who are not on a career path but likely have full-time jobs, and those who are of retirement age – several into their 70s – to carry the load. Without new recruits to fill the ranks, the number of firefighters in Madera County continues to plummet, and that affects everyone.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Matt Watson, who serves as Administrative Battalion Chief for Madera County Fire, started as a PCF, wanting to help his community. Through his career he has spent time getting to know and watch those who followed in his footsteps.
“PCFs do this because they see the need and want to serve,” says Chief Watson. “We need to work as a community to secure retention of the PCFs we have in place and help to keep their motivation to do the job.”
Watson says that indeed this is arduous work and requires dedication and a substantial time commitment, but the rewards are numerous and will carry throughout a lifetime.
According to Watson, there are currently 142 registered PCFs in the county, but only about 40 are consistently active. This covers an area from the Valley floor through the foothills of Eastern Madera County. Chief Watson estimates that adequate coverage for that area needs to be around 400, with all responding at least to a moderate level. Merced County currently states on their web page they have over 300 PCFs at any given time.
One career firefighter and lifelong resident of the area wanted to share his observations on the subject.
“PCFs live in the communities they serve, and have knowledge of the geography of the area as well as the inhabitants. The rewards of knowing that you are making a major, positive difference in the lives of so many people is incredibly rewarding. PCFs are there right alongside the career firefighters, and are often at scene before them. In a medical emergency or serious vehicle accident, those precious extra minutes can be the difference between life and death.
“For those who want to become professional firefighters, there is no more appropriate place to start than as a PCF. There, one learns the basics of what it means to be a firefighter. It’s about having heart, grit and integrity, and carrying these with oneself to provide assistance to people and to the communities in which they live.”
At this time, our local fire stations are in desperate need of firefighters. Bass Lake Station has just one PCF; Cedar Valley, Ahwahnee, O’Neals, Raymond and Oakhurst have just a handful each who are active; North Fork has five, and Yosemite Lakes Park, at the top of the list of active personnel, counts on about a dozen PCFs to respond. The Coarsegold Station was closed down in 2015 due to a lack of firefighters, and others are in danger of suffering the same fate.
While mountain residents enjoy living close to nature, they also live with the reality that help may be some distance away. No matter how dynamic and advanced the local response teams are, they are only as available as their numbers allow, and may well be assigned to fires or other emergencies when a new call comes in.
A recent house fire in North Fork burned for over 45 minutes before engines from Fresno and other agencies arrived; local resources were battling a wildland fire near Ahwahnee and responding to other ongoing emergencies. Only the good defensible space around the home and the efforts of neighbors, a sheriff’s deputy and two off-duty USFS personnel kept this from being the next Willow Fire.
If you want to be a local hero, are 18 years of age and in good physical health, Madera County Fire Department needs you. Recruitment is currently underway for PCFs, with training starting in mid-October and running through March. There is no cost for the training.
Find out more about service as a Paid Call Firefighter by contacting the Madera County Fire Department 855-VOL-FIRE, or online at volunteerfirefighter.org. You may also have an application mailed to your home.