One such volunteer comes to mind when you think of community service and volunteering. That is Ernie Branscomb. How many times have you seen him on the scene of an accident or fire? Or at a community event helping fix the refrigeration system for a local non-profit group?
Perhaps one of his greatest performances has been in the Garberville rodeo parade each year. He's usually the one who starts the water fight between fire departments. Unfortunately, this past June was the last time you will see him in that capacity. He had been warned that he shouldn't do it, but he went out with a splash, much to the delight of those watching the parade. After all, it's tradition and Ernie is all about tradition.
After 39 years of service to the Redway Volunteer Fire Department Ernie has hung up his turnouts and turned in his pager. He said it's so the “younger kids” can take over where he left off. Let it be know that these “younger kids” have some pretty big boots to fill.
The following is in Ernie's own words, with just a bit of editing by this very humble editor.
How do you summarize 39 years in the Redway Volunteer Fire Department? You don't, so I won't try. I would like to make it clear that I didn't retire because they are threatening to make me stop having a water fight in the rodeo parade.
Kids love the water fight and that includes me. The parade is all about kids and having fun. With the water fight rumor gone, the real reason that I'm retiring is that all of my certifications are expiring and I am faced with once again studying for recertification as a Medical First Responder, CPR, and firefighter. Also, a firefighter must be licensed to drive fire trucks.
Being faced with all of that studying for the limited time that I might still feel young enough to drag a fire hose with the younger firefighters compelled me to consider retiring from the fire department. Recertification is no small task. Firefighters take their jobs very seriously and they consider certification to be very important, but it is also very time consuming.
A good friend of mine, also in the fire department, said, “being a first responder is the dues that you pay for the life that you get.”
And, what a life you get. I would recommend to any young person that is capable, to become a volunteer first responder. There is no better feeling than knowing that you saved a family's home, or saved someone's life. Especially if you are part of a group that did those things as a team where everyone gets to share the credit.
We always had something to talk about back at the fire hall. The stories are much more glorious in the re-telling. There is no way to explain the bond between firefighters. You would have to have been a firefighter or soldier to know the bond of trust that forms when you trust your life to the person who “has your back.” My life has probably been saved several times by other firefighters. We watch out for each other. It is so routine that you don't even think about it, but you know when it happens.
I joined the fire department “officially” on March 14, 1973. I was a probational firefighter for a length of time before that.
We had a serious call at least once a week back then. The houses were wood-framed and had board siding with no sheetrock inside. They had wood shingles on the roof with wood heat or fireplaces. They had copper pennies under the fuses in the fuse box. The houses were leftover from the mill camps that we had in this area. The average cost of a house back then wasn't much over $10,000. Losing a house wasn't much of a loss.
We lose fewer houses today. Today's houses are built much better and they are worth a whole lot more, and of course, people are much more fire-conscious.
There is absolutely no way to summarize my experiences in the fire department. That's because each fire, or emergency, has it's own complete story, and there are just too many, but I was there at all of “The Big Ones.”
My first call was to the Texaco bulk plant. We got our fire calls from the lady that lived behind the fire hall. If someone called in a fire, it went to her phone, she would sound the siren that called us to the station. After she sounded the alarm she would run to the fire hall and write the call on a chalkboard.
I read that board as we were leaving the station on my first call. It said “Texaco Bulk Plant, Rusk Lane.” I swallowed my heart a couple of times and said, “What do I do?” The other firefighters told me to watch them, “and don't do anything stupid, or anything that scares you, and don't get hurt!”
That was my very first training as a firefighter. Talk about trial by fire. As it turned out, it was just a broken filler-hose with about 100 gallons gasoline spilled. AND NO FIRE! Whew! Back then, we would wash down fuel spills to reduce the fire hazard. Now, we would soak up the gasoline and put it in containment barrels.
My very first “real fire” was the Hartsook Inn down in Richardson Grove. With the exception of the north end, the whole building was a total loss. I was stationed at the north end of the building, and I had a lot to do with saving it. It was with a considerable amount of pride, for a new firefighter, that I humbly accepted the praise. It must have been like they say in the theater. The applause can be addictive. I knew from that moment on, how good it felt to be part of a team that could save buildings from fire. What a great feeling!
From the Hartsook to many small structure fires my volunteer career became more routine and my confidence level grew. Among the “big ones” was the Garberville Fireman's Hall fire.
The sky was so bright from the fire that I could see to get in my truck at Benbow. I knew the fire was next to the propane bulk plant. I remember the surreal feeling of knowing that the fire was next to a propane plant and I was still headed in that direction.
I felt somewhat vindicated that when I got there, all the other firefighters were showing up. I remember feeling that we must be insane. My first station was between the propane tanks and the fire to keep the tanks cool. In theory, if you keep them cool they don't blow up.
We had to sacrifice a few small propane bottles to save the larger tanks. Some of the valves on the tops melted off. The flames would shoot like a rocket blast with a roaring blue flame about 25 feet into the air. The Garberville fire department was in the south end of the hall and they lost several of their fire trucks to the blaze. The only injuries that were suffered were some smoke-inhalation and exhaustion.
I was totally unscathed, as was the rest of the team that I was stationed with behind the hall. We only had to stand there to hose down and cool the tanks. Some of the other firefighters had to drag numerous hydrant lines to the fire. They got pretty tired.
The next big fire was at the Murrish Food Center in Redway. I was late getting there, because I was responding from Benbow. When I arrived and asked the assistant chief, “Whatta we got?” He replied, “We're (screwed).” That's not an exact quote, but I can't repeat what he really said.
It seemed like the fire was everywhere and we tried to keep the fire as cool as we could. After a few sections of the roof collapsed we went inside to start mopping up.
One of our team members said that there was fire on the other side of the wall from us. I told him “No way, that's an eight-inch thick firewall.”
As we got all the way over to it, flames were shooting 20 feet into the sky. After we finally got the fire completely out the investigators told us that it was an arson fire. They said that there had been 12 “sets.” No wonder the fire was on both sides of the firewall.
Then there was the Southern Humboldt Building Supply fire on March 17, Saint Patrick's Day. We were at a Rotary Club Saint Patrick's Day party and car raffle at the Hartsook Inn. We were coming back into town on the shuttle bus when we saw the fire shooting through the roof.
I, and several others, were in tuxedos. I was the best-dressed firefighter in town that night until my wife brought me my fire turnout clothes. Two firefighters climbed up into the building from underneath with a hose and put the fire out. Due to some compromising circumstance I am sworn to secrecy as to who those firefighters were. It wasn't me but they were the ones that finally brought the fire under control. Southern Humboldt Builders and the Branding Iron (Chick's Bar) were total loses. That fire was also arson, but was set by a different person.
As you can see, I could go on and on.
I was on the last real fire call that the 1937 American La France fire truck went on. I drove the truck to a house up the hill behind Ruby Valley. We still have the truck and we use it in the parades and to deliver Santa Claus to the Redway children.
I was also at the fires at the Log House Museum, the Trees Restaurant, and The Branding Iron Saloon, once again.
I was once involved in a fire on Hillcrest Drive that back-drafted while we were inside. I have worked at Landing Zone Safety training, at The Eel River Conservation Camp during several major wildland fires, and I have also worked on many wildland fires.
Of course the highlights of my career have to be the Redway Barbecue held every Memorial Day weekend and the rodeo parade water fight.
He that shall see this day and live t' old age...
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars...
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages what feats he did that day.
Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words ...
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered...
This story shall the good man teach his son...
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.
-Band of brothers, (greatly edited) Shakespeare
1. Ernie Branscomb
2. Ernie, center, doing what he likes best during a Garberville rodeo parade.
3. Shouldn't you be going towards the fire Ernie?