As volunteerism declines in firefighting, growth seen in Benton Twp.
May 26—The blaze that burned his uncle's farm tempered Logan Edwards' resolve.
Barely a teenager, Edwards joined the Fleetville Volunteer Fire Company as a junior member with the goal of helping the community that came to the rescue when Amasa Hill Farm in Benton Twp. burned nearly two years ago, killing roughly 100 cows.
Now 16, Edwards is training for the day he can take his place as an active firefighter.
"I'd very much recommend (joining)," Edwards said.
The Fleetville company saw membership spark sharply over the past few years, bucking — at least for the moment — wider trends of decline. Membership quickly grew in the days following the devastating Aug. 31, 2021, fire at Amasa Hill Farm. A fire marshal ruled the cause accidental.
The membership spike prompted a charity drive to help buy lifesaving turnout gear for new members, secretary Michelle Ross said. In 2019, the Benton Twp. volunteer organization had six "truly active" members, she said. Now, that number is around 26.
"I can't explain Fleetville other than that they care about each other," said Ross, who is also a Times-Shamrock employee. "I've never lived anywhere where a township or town will do anything for each other and that's what Fleetville is."
Participation in volunteer firefighting has declined dramatically over the past several decades, acting State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook said. This year, Cook said his office plans to analyze state demographics and speak with former firefighters to find solutions.
"The easy part is to say we need more volunteers," he said.
Justin Sturdevant, president of the Dalton Volunteer Fire Company, said "we're always hopeful" trends may turn around but said he does not know what the future may hold.
Ross said several people who volunteered their time to help the farm in the aftermath of the fire ended up volunteering for the fire company.
To help defray costs of gear for new members, the organization asked for donations through a NEPA Gives fundraising drive. The drive seeks to raise money between 7 p.m. June 1 and 7 p.m. June 2. A full set of gear — coat, boots, pants, gloves, hood, vest and helmet — costs $4,000, according to Ross.
Several of Fleetville's new members are junior firefighters — hopefuls preparing to take on responsibilities passed from older generations. Junior firefighters may train, but can't enter burning buildings until age 18.
Fire Chief Anthony Saxton believes the growth likely is only temporary, but he expressed hope the company will retain a core group for the future.
Nathan Walker, 18, joined as a junior firefighter at the age of 17. Like Edwards, he said the fire at Amasa Hill Farm motivated him to join.
Walker plans to leave to join the Air Force as a firefighter. After serving in the military, he intends to return to Fleetville and put his skills to work once again as a volunteer.
"I met some of my best friends through the fire company," Walker said.
Contact the writer:
firstname.lastname@example.org, 570-348-9100, x5187; @jkohutTT on Twitter.