The dramatic increase in fire calls has culminated in an intense strain on departments and higher than normal pressure on the countyâ€™s volunteer fleet. Members of the countyâ€™s District 8 Volunteer Fire Department say firefighters feel a mix of emotions while on the frontline.
â€œWhen youâ€™re in front of that fire, youâ€™re scared and youâ€™re excited all at one time,â€ said Jason Lord, a lieutenant with the department. Lord is a member of a select crew who shares a common bond and commitment with other county firefighters.
Heâ€™s a volunteer battling blazes in an exceptional year that has culminated in a dramatic spike in the number of fires ripping through Chaves County.
Where Lordâ€™s department of about 20 members differs, is that itâ€™s comprised of Roswell Correctional Center prison inmates. District 8 was established in 1996 and is the only county volunteer department located on correctional facility grounds.
Firefighters who meet certain criteria are screened and approved to respond outside of the facility and assist in protecting the community. â€œThese guys are held to a high standard … (and) as long as their hearts are in the right place, thatâ€™s what I look for,â€ said Barry Wilkenson, the stationâ€™s chief and one of a handful of prison administrators who manage the department.
â€œThey get something out of it and the county gets something out of it,â€ he said.
Wilkenson says passion among his crew is not hard to find and that 98 percent of the men who are accepted into the program stay with it.
â€œOnce you get your first fire youâ€™re hooked and itâ€™s in your blood.â€ The department has responded to 56 calls since January â€” more than they had in all of 2010. Just like other county departments, the spike in calls equates to more danger.
â€œBeing that close to the fire and feeling the heat, youâ€™re scared, youâ€™re excited â€” there are so many things going through your head,â€ Lord said.
â€œAll I know is when youâ€™re going to a fire and you know structures are threatened, all youâ€™re thinking about is how youâ€™re going to save those structures.â€ In addition to being a lieutenant with the station, which entails looking after and managing his crew, Lord is the driver of one the of departmentâ€™s engines.
He works alongside of and has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of other firefighters like Lt. Micah Henry. â€œWeâ€™re off road quite a bit (and Iâ€™m always) trying to keep watch for the driver,â€ said Henry, joking that the key to keeping safe is to â€œwatch that bumpâ€ in the terrain.
However, the terrain is hardly the only thing that Henry and his counterparts across the county need to be mindful of in order to stay on their toes and keep safe.
â€œItâ€™s intense. You canâ€™t predict what (a fire) is going to do,â€ he said. â€œChasing the head of the fire is probably the most intense part. … A lot of times itâ€™s stressful.â€ Despite joining the department while having to wear a bright orange prison-issue shirt under their gear, the men opted for the same task and responsibilities as their counterparts on the other side of the prison walls.
â€œWe fight fires side by side with them,â€ Wilkenson said.