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Beltrami fires up party for new fire hall

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Beltrami, Minn., volunteer firefighters Josh Awender (from left), Rory Hamre, Jeremiah Gudvangen, Chief Danny Netland, Scott Eia, Dale Schoenborn and Benn Schoenborn stand in front of one of their trucks Tuesday in their spacious new fire hall. There are 27 volunteers on the community's fire department. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 5
Firefighting gear hangs in a neat row inside the new Beltrami fire hall on Tuesday in the rural Minnesota community. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 5
Former Beltrami Fire Chief Rory Hamre dons some of his gear Tuesday at the new Beltrami Fire Hall. He served as the chief of the all-volunteer crew for 16 years. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 5
Beltrami, Minn., recently opened a new fire hall on the south side of the Polk County community. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)5 / 5

BELTRAMI, Minn.—Beltrami: Population 107. This small northwest Minnesota town might not have a lot of five-alarm fires, but if there's smoke or medical trouble within 76 square miles, the rural communities know the Beltrami Fire Department has it covered.

Nearly 140 people from as far away as 50 miles came to show their appreciation Sunday for the 27 all-volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel with a barbecue and potluck, town parade and open house to dedicate the city's new fire hall.

"It was a lot of fun," Fire Chief Danny Netland said. "Anytime you get that many people together and food, it's a good time. I was trying to gear it to public awareness, too."

Neighboring rescue experts and law enforcement, along with a life flight helicopter unit, also took part in the event where children could "sit in the captain's chairs and crawl around and explore the fire trucks."

The 50-by-104-foot steel structure replaced the city's two-bay fire hall, which was housed for about 15 years in a refurbished school gymnasium. Netland, who also serves on the Beltrami City Council, said the fire department had been pricing new shingles in March when the town's expanding and biggest employer, West Central Ag Services, offered to buy the building for the cost of building a new fire hall.

The city settled on $285,000, and the groundbreaking began in May on land donated by Todd Christian in memory of his father and longtime farmer, Ray Christian. The new facility on the south end of town is larger and offers some efficiencies, Netland said. The department had to store its trucks back to back in the old fire hall. The new one includes a bay and door for each of the department's five trucks. It has floor heat instead of forced air, and natural gas instead of propane.

There's also an office and storage space for equipment the American Legion Post uses for memorial services.

"The thing you miss most about the old fire hall is the nostalgia of the old gym," Netland said. "You're losing part of your history. The whole gym was tongue-and-groove, and you had these wooden arches. It was really awesome. The basketball hoop was still up on one end, and we could play a game when the trucks were out."

Friends and family

As a small group of firefighters gathered again Tuesday, they talked shop and joked around. The crew is a close-knit group, many of them longtime friends or relatives.

"The people who are volunteering now are doing it for the love of the people," Netland said. "They are taking time out of their night or day to go out and help others."

Ninety percent of the volunteers are farmers, and the other 10 percent are involved in the ag industry some other way.

"You know everybody. We've all grown up here all our lives. I'm the anchor," Jeremiah Gudvangen said.

"Yeah, we're the heavy lifters," added Scott Eia with a laugh. "It's always fun. (When a call comes in,) I always say just give me the name of the person. I know where they live. I just don't know the address."

For some, the job has been handed from father to son. Such is the case for Beltrami Mayor Dale Schoenborn and his sons, Benn and Evan. All three are volunteers.

"You have to have protection in a small town, and we don't have a lot of people, so everyone needs to pitch in," the elder Schoenborn said.

Benn and another volunteer, Josh Awender, said they enjoy the camaraderie and fellowship of the community coming together for the common good.

"I've been coming to fire meetings since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I always knew I'd end up doing it," Benn said.

He is 26, about the average age of the younger volunteers. But there also are a few longtime firefighters who remain active, including the former 16-year Fire Chief Rory Hamre.

"It's a fun crew to work with, and I know the neighbors. I grew up here many years. I love living out in the country. It's a good community."

The fire hall's new digs are a little different, but it's probably not too late to put up a net for a quick game of hoops. No need to move the trucks. There is a nice piece of concrete right out front.