By Michael Althouse
The Colfax Record
When I first started working at the Colfax Record, just a little more than a year ago, the paper was still at its long-time home on Church Street. It wasn’t even a stone’s throw away from the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department.
At the time, I was still very new to Colfax and didn’t realize what the administrative differences were between the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now CAL FIRE) and the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department.
Yes, I saw the word “volunteer,” but I didn’t really think that it meant they were volunteers. I figured the moniker was simply a throwback, a quaint relic of a time gone by and perfectly fitting for an old, small mountain town.
But I didn’t really think they were volunteers.
They all looked like the real deal. They had the clothes, the boots, the apparatus… the fire engine. No, they weren’t really volunteers, were they?
As in they don’t get paid.
Not for waking up in the middle of the night for a call.
Not for the 15 to 20 average hours per week of responding to calls, training and maintaining equipment.
Not for leaving their families on a moment’s notice - sometimes for days at a time.
Not for risking their lives.
Not for saving yours.
Not for any of it.
And for all that, they must train just like their compensated counterparts. It’s not simply a matter of signing on the dotted line. There are hours and hours of initial training followed by more hours of training just to stay current.
In every respect except one, they are the real deal. They just don’t take home a check.
Colfax CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Chris Paulus approached me last month about writing a story on the volunteer firefighters.
He told me of the newest volunteers and of the professionalism that each member represents and of the sacrifices they make. He was (and is) still new to his positions as both Colfax CAL FIRE battalion chief and as Colfax Volunteer Fire Department chief. I could tell he had genuine admiration for the volunteer crew he inherited.
Although I did write that story, I told him that would be a good topic for a column. I explained that in a column, I get to say what I think - and I think Paulus is right.
Paulus feels strongly about his firefighters. He must - he took time away from fighting the 20,000-acre plus Antelope Complex Fire in the Plumas National Forest to return a call to me just to talk about these local heroes.
“They were the only ones working for free during the Independence Day celebration in Colfax,” he said. “All of the other police and fire personnel were getting paid and these volunteers left their families on a family holiday to help their community.”
Timothy Keyes has a regular job. He is a firefighter with the Sacramento City Fire Department. He is also a volunteer firefighter in Colfax.
“In Colfax, there is more work per person,” he said. “In Sac City, if there is a fire of any kind, there are instantly 30 people on it.”
“In Colfax, you have to do the same with fewer people, knowing that help might be more than just a few minutes away.”
Chris Toepfer, a five year veteran of the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department, echoes Keyes sentiments.
“It’s critical on the initial attack to get someone there to knock the fire down,” he said. “And we know it might be a while before we get any help.”
The Placer Hills Fire Protection District, just down the hill from Colfax, has a mix of paid firefighters and volunteers. Fire Chief Ian Gow relies heavily on the volunteers.
“Volunteers have the same training requirements as professional firefighters,” Gow said. “We couldn’t function without the volunteers.”