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On call for their community

Supporting the Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue, there are a number of paid on-call volunteer departments in the region, including Rossland, Warfield, Genelle, Montrose and Fruitvale.
Fruitvale firefighter Norm Johnson helps his colleague Juanita Lankhaar hold the hose during a training session at Fruitvale Elementary School. The 18 members also practiced catching a hydrant and shuttling and drafting water.

A siren sounds as a truckload of firefighters are off to save the day, not for the money but to give back.

Whether it’s rescuing a family from a burning house or prying a victim from a vehicle and administering first-response medical attention, the community depends on firefighters.

Supporting the Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue, there are a number of paid on-call volunteer departments in the region, including Rossland, Warfield, Genelle, Montrose and Fruitvale.

“It’s something that you train for every week but when you’re actually doing it, it’s unbelievable,” said Fruitvale firefighter Rick Meakes, when the Times got a sneak peak at a regular training session. “It’s so difficult to explain but when you have fire rolling over your head, it’s something else.”

The 35-year-old joined the department nearly six years ago when he wanted to get socially involved in an organization that supported the community.

“You hear the saying that fire brothers are family, it’s totally true,” he said. “For me, when I moved back here and joined, I gained 20-plus friends and all of their spouses.”

With a criminal record check, driver’s abstract, formal interview and hands-on training, just about anyone with a passion can eventually serve their community.

Beyond learning how to work the equipment – including operating a hose that can weigh up to 100 pounds with the water pressure – members complete the first responder program.

The department attracts volunteer members from all walks of life, including 16-year-old junior firefighter Sean Johnson, who has followed in his dad’s footsteps, to fire chief Bill Thompson, who is nearing retirement at 60.

“Firefighting is probably about 90 per cent training, 10 per cent putting it to use,” said Thompson, who has been with the Fruitvale department for 16 years and has an extensive resume with other emergency service organizations.

“We build a lot of trust between us – if you have to go into a burning building and something happens to you, you have to have enough trust that the guy beside you will get you out.”

New to the team, Juanita Lankhaar got a taste of a real-life scenario when she was blindfolded and took part in a burning building mock exercise.

“Being blind (folded) and having somebody step on your heels and tell you, ‘you’re in a fire – go – the roof is going to collapse” was a rush for Lankhaar, who patiently awaits her first real call.

In the meantime, she continues to gain new skills weekly in preparation for a chance to put her hands-on training to use. She has also gained many mentors in the process, too, including 27-year-old Kyle Boutin, who just left the Fruitvale department to pursue a full-time position with regional fire out of Trail.

“You have to have the drive,” she said. “It’s passion for the commitment to be here; to hear that pager go off in the middle of the night and it’s not like ‘oh darn,’ I get goose bumps.”

The mother of three has wanted to become a member for years, but was just waiting for the right time.

Lankhaar, 37, admits she was a little intimidated to become the second female firefighter in the region but said joining the team has been a smooth transition.

“I think I’m more male than female most of the time,” she laughed. “I had to apologize to one of the members who knew me on a professional level – prim and proper nice Juanita – this is me, take me as I am.”

The ride has been rewarding for her family, too, especially her two young girls who witness their mother step away from her duties at home to take on a role not traditionally filled by a woman.

On call 24-hours a day, the department ensures at least two members are free to answer a call from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Although the department usually only responds to one major fire a year, they’re always ready.

This time last year, firefighters responded to a fire that destroyed a transport company’s trailers and came close to residents’ homes just south of the intersection of Old Waneta Road and the Seven Mile Dam Road (across from the Trimac turn off).

The brush fire was much different than the Toxco fire, when lithium explosions from an outbuilding in the rear yard of the battery recycling plant eventually caught fire in November of 2009.

The department also did its part in the Pend d’Oreille wild fire in 2007, which burned to nearly 4,000 hectares and took 104 days to suppress.

“We were pretty lucky that the wind shifted because if it didn’t it could have been a lot worse,” recalled Meakes. “Just look at Slave Lake.”

Beyond putting their lives on the line to help their community, the department also runs the Fruitvale Firefighter Society, a nonprofit group that has been raising funds to support individuals and families in crisis. Since 2006 they have donated about $15,000 to assist families with expenses for hotels, food and transportation.

“I admire the Fruitvale fire department for a lot of reasons ­– for our community, for my family and children and it goes on forever,” said Lankhaar. “It’s a wicked experience to be a part of it and I feel super lucky.”