Fires always fascinated my dad and me. He was an industrial fireman and loved to put them out. I was a somewhat troublesome kid who loved to set them. Somehow I managed to live to adulthood, my only lasting damage being the memory of a recurrent burning pain in my backside.
It’s probably well that I’d completed the interview with Bigfork Fire Chief Wayne Loeffler before making my troublesome past public. I’ve known Wayne a couple of years, first in planning emergency access for the new layout of the art festival and later as a fellow director on the Chamber of Commerce Board. Many in Bigfork have known him longer. Before taking on this “retirement job” as fire chief, Wayne was prominent in the Bigfork school system: 18 years as a high school teacher and 16 as the middle school principal. Of course, for 30 of those years, he was also a volunteer fireman.
The Bigfork Fire Department is a combination paid/volunteer department. Wayne, Assistant Chief Mic Borges, and a couple administrative personnel are paid, as are the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) who provide the ambulance service and staff the station 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But the majority of the folks who put the fires out are volunteers. And where do they come from?
“Anyone who has an interest in fire prevention and public safety is encouraged to apply,” Wayne said. “Just come by and fill out an application, we’ll do a background check, and then you’re on probation for a year.” Anyone, even me? “Yes, we accept applicants of all ages. Granted, we’d really like to see some young, strapping applicants who can carry the heavy equipment around. But we’ll find a place for anyone who wants to volunteer.” Background check. Hmm.
Wayne continued. “We perform an important function here, but it’s also sort of like a fraternity. We get together every Tuesday evening to work on some aspect of our skills, but we’re here because we want to be, not because we have to be. And when you have people who get together on a regular basis doing something they like, it’s a social thing as well. Of course, we all understand that we’re putting our lives on the line every time we respond and that gives what we do and the fellowship we feel a certain intensity.”
What kind of equipment does the Bigfork department have? “We’re pretty well equipped,” Wayne offers. “We have two Type 1 Engines, which are about as big and effective as you get. Each will hold four firefighters, 1,000 gallons of water, and can pump at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute. We also have two tank trucks, a ladder truck, a rescue rig, a brush truck, and two ambulances.”
And who bought those?
“Much of our money comes from a portion of the taxes the county collects. We have our own board of trustees, who I work for, but they in turn report to the county commissioners.”
And you have occasional fundraisers, I note. Wayne smiles. “Yes, in fact we have our major one coming up this week. I should say, though, that it’s not the department that sponsors it. Rather, it’s the Friends of the Bigfork Fire Department, a separate non-profit group that raises funds that we usually direct toward the purchase of equipment. Our training facility in Echo Lake cost $160,000 to build. Those funds came from the Friends. We’ve also used funds to purchase an electric transport cot and a thermal imager. The thermal imager is mostly for finding hot spots around a fire, but it’s also useful in finding people who may have wandered away from a vehicle accident that we can’t see in the dark.”
The Friends of Bigfork Fire are holding their sixth annual fundraising event this weekend, Sept. 5 and 6: A golf tournament on Friday at Eagle Bend, a tennis tournament Thursday and Friday at Montana Athletic Club, and “Brats, Burgers, and Band” at 5 p.m. on Friday at Harbor Village Pavilion. Good opportunities to play, eat and support the important work of our fire department. For information, call Jim Sticka at 837-2294.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.