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Our view: Small towns in need of more heroes

Herald editorial board

When a wind-driven blaze roared last week near Gilby, it shut down stretches of roads and created a spectacle on the horizon west of Grand Forks as smoke billowed skyward.

For as large as it was, the prairie fire did little real damage, though.

How can that be?

Damage was minimal because the fire quickly was contained by crews from Gilby, Manvel, Emerado and Larimore. Those four towns have a combined population of just 2,300 residents, but they still maintain volunteer fire departments that remain at the ready for all sorts of emergencies.

The hardware store owner? The grain elevator clerk? The school janitor?

All of these everyday folks may well save a home or a life tomorrow because they still care enough to volunteer their time for this essential service.

Unfortunately, it's a tradition that's starting to lose its luster. A report in Sunday's Herald told how the North Dakota Firefighters Association is in the midst of a media blitz to raise awareness and overall interest in volunteer firefighting.

The Herald featured a large photo of the Larimore Fire Department in Sunday's edition, but it's not a problem limited to that town. In May, local television station WDAZ profiled a similar problem in Mayville. It's a statewide issue.

Ninety-six percent of fire departments in North Dakota are staffed by volunteers and population swings haven't been kind to rural departments. The same phenomenon — outmigration — that is affecting small-town schools and small-town business districts also is taking a bite out of small-town fire departments.

There just aren't as many residents as there used to be. In Petersburg, for instance, there are only 192 residents. The department there has 15 or 20 members, but only about 10 are active, the Herald reported.

Other problems faced by the NDFA are more contemporary. For example, some small towns have a large percentage of residents who work outside of town, in a larger community. That means fewer people are around during the day to help fight fires.

And, according to NDFA President Dale Trosen, recruiting young adults to make the commitment to firefighting is just harder nowadays.

"Being a volunteer takes a lot more than people realize," he told the Herald.

So the NDFA is putting its sales pitch out before the public, hoping to generate interest and boost volunteerism. We've seen the TV commercial, and it's a good one with impact. Be on the lookout for it.

We are careful of our use of the word "hero," but volunteer firefighters are indeed heroes. They save homes and lives and their commitment comes with little payoff — other than the satisfaction of providing true public service in a difficult, often traumatic, environment.

We need more of these heroes, and if we can help spread the word, we're happy to do it.