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Older firefighters serve as town's first line of defense against wildfires

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2001

RANCHO TEHAMA, Calif. (AP) -- When Marg Jekel's rural home caught fire a few years ago, her rescuers included a crew of volunteer firefighters.

Not just any crew -- volunteers over age 60.

With little more than a 1948 REO fire truck, a few fire hats and a hose, crew members shot water at Jekel's blazing home for several minutes before the town's official volunteer force arrived.

''I just thought that was so great, that they helped save my house, so I decided to join,'' Jekel, a retired nurse, says as she brushes aside a lock of gray hair.

The Old Timers Firefighters, as the crew is known, is the largest volunteer firefighting organization in this rural Northern California town. The volunteers are also the only immediate line of defense against wildfires and mobile home fires that frequently threaten the town's 1,000 residents.

The crew was founded in 1980 when volunteer firefighters couldn't be over 65 -- a rule that no longer exists. Seventeen members make up today's crew, with five of the oldest given honorary membership.

The average age is 66; the oldest is 87-year-old Merle Lint, an original member.

Lee Rice, 79, is a former Los Angeles police officer and retired insurance agent.

''My wife has some concerns that I'm too old for this. She thinks I'll go out to a fire and maybe not come back,'' he says. ''I just tell her to bite the bullet. Heck, I'm not too old.''

State fire officials say the Old Timers crew is probably the only volunteer force of its kind in California, and likely the nation.

Still, the crew probably wouldn't pass the health requirements and does not have enough training to win recognition by the California Department of Forestry as an official volunteer force.

Instead, Tehama County pays the state forestry department to serve as the county firefighting force.

The town's official volunteer force, Station 13, has only five firefighters, and just two or three are home during the day. It might take 30 minutes for volunteers from the Rancho Tehama force to get to a mobile home fire at the back end of town. The forestry department crew usually takes longer.

Rancho Tehama, nicknamed ''The Ranch,'' is about 150 miles north of Sacramento and Reno, Nev. Here, the plains of the Sacramento Valley roll into wooded foothills of the coastal range. There is little mown grass, just well-kept weeds. Even in the wet seasons the expanses are covered in dry brush and dead trees.

Instead of fire hydrants, a few water storage tanks and 1,500 gallons of water stored in the Old Timers' 1955 Dodge water truck are available to firefighters. It is so difficult to navigate the rural roads that ambulance crews often call Old Timers for help in guiding them to emergency medical calls.

The Old Timers don't go inside burning buildings because they have only a few odd-sized fire suits. They wear red, nylon jackets and hydrant-red baseball caps with foam fronts and mesh backs.

Their 1948 REO fire truck, which can carry only 500 gallons of water, was decommissioned from the forestry department and given to the Old Timers ''for $700 and a promise never to bring it back,'' crew members joke. The crew got the water truck free, but it needs a transmission.

The Old Timers raise funds by scrounging around town collecting aluminum cans and glass for recycling. Most of the money pays the liability insurance bill and maintaining the fire truck, a historic vehicle they nicknamed ''Old Faithful.''

''There's a few people down here that nearly entirely support us with regular bags full of beer bottles. It's so thoughtful,'' says Dick Van Roggen, 75, who once worked for the local telephone company.

Although the volunteers are older than the fire truck, they seem to have more get-up-and-go.

Lint, who worked on Union Pacific trains as a fireman starting the coal fires that ran the locomotives during World War II, still runs Old Faithful's water pumps if he can hitch a ride with another Old Timer. Except for the few who drive the truck, almost everyone takes his own car on a fire call.

At least 80 percent of California's residents work several miles away from home and would be unable to get back home when sparks fly. Others don't have the time for frequent volunteer training sessions, says Jeff Sedivec, president of the California Firefighters Association.

The result is dangerously understaffed volunteer stations that have high turnover rates and are also often stuck with slim budgets.

Residents of Rancho Tehama are undoubtedly safer than in other communities with few official volunteers, says Anthony Ramirez, assistant fire chief of Station 13.

''They are a big help,'' Ramirez says of the Old Timers. ''Sometimes we don't show up at all if we're all out of town and it's really important that they get water on a fire as soon as they do.''

Although the professionals take over once they are on the scene, the Old Timers have been called on to work the lines of wildfires and often make water trips for the official firefighters.

''Certainly there is a danger, but when you see those guys leading you to the fire and know they have got there first, it's very much appreciated,'' said Bill Hoehman, chief of the Tehama-Glenn CDF Fire Department.

''I think they go into the fires intelligently and certainly there are unforeseen dangers, but when you have these actively involved citizens, what else can you say but thanks? Especially these days when you are seeing less and less of that,'' he said.

Yet the future of the Old Timers' crew is unclear.

Kriss Brown, a youngster at 50, works as the group's dispatcher, regularly waking up to the ''squawk that could raise the dead'' and then calling each Old Timer.

The Plectron receivers that transmit calls for local fires are so outdated that parts are no longer manufactured and only two of the five boxes work. When the last boxes die, it may be difficult to get the calls.

Still, the Old Timers are confident they won't be forgotten.

''There will always be a need for us and we have such a good time we will always be doing it,'' Van Roggen says. ''That's a promise. It's our responsibility.''

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On the Net:

National Volunteer Fire Council: http://www.nvfc.org/

REO Auto Museum: http://www.reoautomuseum.com/

End advance for Thursday, May 3



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