I got the chance to speak with Shawn Ricks, the chief of the Niangua fire protection district this week, though the circumstances were hardly happy for the man. Their third attempt to raise funds for the district through tax levies was defeated in last week’s election, and his disappointment was apparent. To be honest, I was disappointed by the decision as well. I don’t claim to have a complete understanding of the facets of this issue because I don’t have tons of experience with small community volunteer fire departments. I do have one experience, though, and it’s been enough to compel my support for what they do.
A couple years ago, I was down in Tecumseh at a writer’s retreat. Dawt Mill, the campground/resort where maybe 60 or so creative writers were gathered, sits right on the North Fork of the White River, and this particular spring, heavy rains had turned the usually picturesque turquoise waters into a raging gray torrent. On the second day of the retreat, the sky opened up and drenched us all morning and afternoon. By the time we gathered for dinner in the early evening, the river had risen to touch the deck of the dining lodge.
Even then, no one was really scared. We attended scheduled readings and we huddled together to sleep in the cabins that were further up the hill. It just seemed like this would be a unique wrinkle to the typical experience of the semi-annual retreat.
Around midnight, I looked out of my cabin window to see a bustle of people anxiously packing their cars. The river had apparently risen to envelop the lower areas of the resort, and one of the small cabins down there had just detached from its sodden foundation and floated away. By then, everyone had evacuated that area for higher ground, but the sight was enough to send a thin jolt of panic through us all.
The on-site manager called everyone together and announced that we were waiting to hear back from emergency services about a safe route for evacuation and until we got word, we needed to stay put. Someone asked him how high the water could possibly get, and his answer was blunt.
“We don’t know,” he said. “It reached its all-time high this afternoon and it’s still rising.”
It took another half-hour or so for word to reach us that the path up to the local fire station was all clear. In the meantime, I had convinced myself I was going to die surrounded by a bunch of creative writers vying for the best descriptions of flooding rivers.
We moved in a caravan of probably three dozen cars through the dark and the still-beating rain, only the few in the lead knowing how to get where we were headed. When I finally set eyes on the squat red building that was the Tecumseh fire station, I let out a breath I’d been holding all night.
The men and women of that community’s volunteer fire department had successfully evacuated a throng of tourists from a historic flood, personally scouting the roads for a safe route, coordinating an orderly procession of vehicles and setting up their station to host a pile of soggy refugees — all while many were fearing for their own property and loved ones. They even brought in donated food and made us pancakes in the morning.
I’ve had a place in my heart for volunteer fire departments ever since. To me, they kind of embody what a government entity should be: just a bunch of community members who look around them, see a need in their area and step up to fulfill that need.
Maybe it’s hard for others to see those needs right away. I know I never gave much thought to who, in a tiny community like Tecumseh, would be there to save my bacon when I was surrounded by rising waters, but when the moment came, it mattered to me more than anything.
That’s the thing with emergencies. They’re easy enough to ignore when you’re not in the center of them, and that to me is what makes guys like Shawn Ricks kind of extraordinary. They keep their eyes on the community good even when the community can’t see it themselves. They prepare themselves to saddle up in the worst of times and make a difference where they’re needed most.
Keep up the good fight, folks.