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Hawaii Island’s brave volunteers

<p>The smaller truck in the volunteer fleet, X9B, is a 1968 Jeep 4x4 that is a 300 gallon capacity brush truck. Both are military vehicles converted for firefighting. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN)</p>

The smaller truck in the volunteer fleet, X9B, is a 1968 Jeep 4x4 that is a 300 gallon capacity brush truck. Both are military vehicles converted for firefighting. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN)

<p>The larger, T-9B, is a 1985, M923 6x6, 1,200 gallon capacity tanker. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN)</p>

The larger, T-9B, is a 1985, M923 6x6, 1,200 gallon capacity tanker. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN)

<p>Mike Shattuck and Barrie Floyd with their 1,200-gallon capacity tanker. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)</p>

Mike Shattuck and Barrie Floyd with their 1,200-gallon capacity tanker. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)

<p>Mike Shattuck and Barrie Floyd with their 1,200-gallon capacity tanker. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)</p>

Mike Shattuck and Barrie Floyd with their 1,200-gallon capacity tanker. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)

<p>The T-9B, a 1,200 gallon capacity tanker, has a retrofitted ladder. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)</p>

The T-9B, a 1,200 gallon capacity tanker, has a retrofitted ladder. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)

<p>Mike Shattuck, captain of 9-B Volunteer Fire Company, shows a lightweight firefighter jacket used when fighting specific fires. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)</p>

Mike Shattuck, captain of 9-B Volunteer Fire Company, shows a lightweight firefighter jacket used when fighting specific fires. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)

<p>Floyd and Shattuck after fighting a fire in Kanehoa, 2010. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN)</p>

Floyd and Shattuck after fighting a fire in Kanehoa, 2010. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN)

<p>Mike Shattuck, captain of 9-B Volunteer Fire Company, and volunteer firefighter Barrie Floyd with their truck. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)</p>

Mike Shattuck, captain of 9-B Volunteer Fire Company, and volunteer firefighter Barrie Floyd with their truck. (PHOTO BY LISA M. DAHM| NHN)

<p>A volunteer firefighter from 9-B Volunteer Fire Company stands on X9B fighting a fire in Kona, July 4, last year. PHOTO BY KEOKI CARTER COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN</p>

A volunteer firefighter from 9-B Volunteer Fire Company stands on X9B fighting a fire in Kona, July 4, last year. PHOTO BY KEOKI CARTER COURTESY OF MIKE SHATTUCK FOR NHN

Summer is almost here, and with it comes the risk of more brush fires on Hawaii Island. One would think that with the recent rains, the number of wildfires would decrease, but instead, rainfall offers the potential for increased fires in the coming months.

“If the rains come, it creates more plants and grass,” explained Captain Clyde Komatsu of the Hawaii Island Volunteer Fire Department. “Then when it doesn’t rain again (in summer), the plants and grass turn brown, creating more fuel that could potentially burn.”

Hawaii Island, with its land mass of 4,028 square miles, needs a lot of firefighters to stay on alert. According to Captain Komatsu, it is the only island with volunteer fire fighters. Started in the 1960’s, volunteers in the mostly rural areas were trained by the Hawaii Fire Department to assist the paid firefighters.

“We’re back-up to the paid guys,” Komatsu said. “They’ll call us if they need additional help and if we’re available, we go.”

There are 27 volunteer companies on the island. Three volunteer fire stations cover the North Hawaii area: North Kohala (Kohala Estates), Anekona/Kanehoa, and Pu’uanahulu. Manned with volunteers who all have varied backgrounds, trades and skills, the volunteer firefighters take on additional responsibility for no additional pay.

After a brush fire hit his community of Anekona about five years ago, Mike Shattuck said some of the residents started up a volunteer firefighting unit. The personal experience motivated him to volunteer his time and energy to stop the brush fires that threatened the homes in his area. Now, there are nine volunteers on the roster and they have two fire suppression vehicles in their fleet.

“We try to make ourselves available as much as possible,” Shattuck said. “We don’t do the medical side of things, but primarily we help with wild-land fires as well as some structural fires.”

By using a pager system, Shattuck said most of the volunteers are on call 24 hours a day with the Hawaii County Fire Department. Those that can make it, show up.

Another volunteer is James Fritz who serves in the Pu’uanahulu/Pualani Ranch area. Eight men serve at the station, which is situated next to the Big Island Country Club.

“Most of us are self employed and we get dispatched like any other department,” said Fritz. “It’s a rural area here, and I do this to protect my home and my neighbors. Once you’ve done it, and see that you make a difference, you keep doing it.”

Fritz said the Big Island Country Club gave them the land to build a volunteer firehouse. Now, the company responds not only to calls in their area, but they also cover calls from mauka of Waikoloa to lower Kawaihae and even to South Kona. With 25 years of experience, Fritz said it takes a certain amount of bravery to fight fires, and that it is the “ultimate public service.”

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteer firefighters comprise 69 percent of the nation’s fire service. Of the total 30,145 fire departments in the country, 20,200 are all volunteer; 5,530 are mostly volunteer; 1,865 are mostly career; and 2,550 are all career. Communities with a population of under 2,500 rely almost entirely on volunteer departments. The Big Island has 350 paid professional firefighters and about 250 volunteer firefighters.

Peter Banks is the volunteer fire captain for the North Kohala Coast volunteer fire company. Volunteering for more than 16 years now, he was made captain two years ago.

“We’re trained one to two times a month with the fire department,” Banks said. “There are 17 personnel in our team and we are CPR certified, first responder certified and have general first aid training.”

The station, formed in 1995, is located in Kohala Ranch and all volunteers live outside of the station. In order to respond to fire calls, they need to unlock the gate to get the fire trucks out. Official coverage for this station includes Kawaihae and areas to Hawi and north, although the volunteers have responded to calls in Waimea, Waikoloa and even as far as the Costco area in North Kona.

“I don’t like to see car accidents and I want to fight fires, not be an EMT,” said Banks. “I personally volunteer to help out the community during fire disasters.”

Captain Komatsu said it takes people who are both motivated and dedicated to be volunteer firefighters.

“They help their community and aid the paid stations,” Komatsu said. “Our fire fighters are a valuable resource for our island.”

Captain James Boone of the Mauna Lani Fire Station, along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, said they are a paid station.

“Basically when there is a fire call, dispatch will page the volunteers and they respond if they are available,” said Boone. “Many of the volunteers have jobs and responsibilities, but they do a great job.”

In order to become a volunteer firefighter, the minimum qualifications are to be at least 18 years old and to undergo a background check. It takes dedication and many hours of training to become a firefighter, but if one is willing to put in the time and effort, the rewards are great.

The Hawaii Fire Department receives between 23,000 to 24,000 calls per year. Most are medical and fire alarms. According to Komatsu, volunteers are not to respond to fire attacks, EMT calls or medical/pain calls.

By setting up regular volunteer training sessions, volunteer firefighters are kept abreast of what is happening on the island as well as stay current on their certifications.

On April 20, the first Hawaii Island Fireman’s Muster was held at Pohakuloa Training Area. A gathering of more than 24 firefighters (both paid and volunteer) and their families, the muster was held to create rapport and bring people together who work in the same field, though in different capacities.

With competitive events for both adults and children, the hope is that the event will grow, keep the camaraderie going and improve morale among both paid firefighters and the volunteers.

“There’s a lot of good people on both sides, and we have a good rapport with the paid guys,” said Shattuck. “We’re always looking for more volunteers.”

To find out more about the Hawaii Island Fire Volunteers visit www.hvfca.net.