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Building on Faith 

With fingers firmly crossed, Fieldbrook volunteers raise the roof on a new firehouse

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Amy Barnes

Every day but Sunday, pickup trucks congregate outside Fieldbrook's Volunteer Fire Department. Workers hang from the firehouse roof, demolish walls, climb scaffolding and mix concrete. It's like a barn raising — a testament to what can be accomplished when a community works together.

The project has been a long time coming. Firefighter and contractor Gene Callahan was first asked to expand Fieldbrook's firehouse in the 1980s. With retirement on the horizon, and a keen appreciation for life's mercurial tendencies, Callahan recently approached the department. "Let's fish or cut bait," he recalls telling them. "Right now I have the energy. I have the willpower. Do you guys want me to do this?" They did, and so the department launched into the $330,000 remodel, well before voter approval of November's tax assessment measure, which would fund the renovations.

"I knew they needed this firehouse worse than anything," Callahan said last week. "And I love this community. And the only way I knew I could do it was to offer my services for free. We needed this so bad, and it was never gonna happen. It's not easy, let me tell you; it's driving my wife crazy. But in three or four months it'll be done and Fieldbrook will have a firehouse."

Callahan, who owns Black Oak Construction, has worked alongside department members and the Fieldbrook Glendale Community Services District board to get everything lined up for the project — everything except voter-approved funding.

"Maybe we're putting the cart before the horse by going and building it before we have approval," Fire Chief Rich Grissom admits. "But it was the only option we had. Gene is doing this for free. If it wasn't for him and his desire to get it going, it wouldn't have happened. It wouldn't ever happen."

Callahan has assembled a patchwork of volunteers — engineers, fellow contractors, lawyers, lumber yard owners, roofers, high school students, woodworkers and dump truck drivers. Even the surfer down the street has pitched in. "I'm drawing in everybody I ever worked with [over] the past 40 years," Callahan said. All this volunteer dedication knocked down the projected cost of the project — $900,000 — by nearly two-thirds.

"The volunteers? Well, they've impressed the hell out of me," says John McFarland, former chief of fire departments in Eureka, Arcata and Crescent City. He's been helping out in Fieldbrook three days a week for two months now. "Being out here pounding nails with these guys? I can't believe the community. Folks that go by, they honk and wave, they yell, they give you the thumbs up."

McFarland rubs the back of his bald head, looks sideways and adds, "And they keep bringing goodies. Every day we're getting two or three batches of brownies or cookies. One lady brought a dozen sandwiches! Every day that stuff's coming in! These guys have support like I've never seen."

Community support has been the cornerstone of Fieldbrook's Volunteer Fire Department from the beginning. Founded in 1955 after townspeople helplessly watched a house burn to the ground, the department didn't establish a tax until 1964. Until then, money for fuel and trucks came straight from people's pockets and from the fundraising efforts of the women's adjunct group, the "Smokettes."

The department now has 22 members, including seven certified emergency medical technicians and a registered nurse. It serves around 2,200 residents on 550 parcels. Medical emergencies make up about 80 percent of its calls.

The remodel is desperately needed. To explain why, Callahan turns on his heels and strides toward the firehouse, calling over his shoulder, "Come on in!"

"We've so outgrown this thing." He points out the narrow walkway between the ends of the parked trucks and the building's back wall. "We don't have room to do anything. Just look at this!"

Big chunks of trim are missing around the garage door. Callahan explains that the old trucks were shorter and smaller and the new rigs don't fit. At one point firefighters took the door trim off completely, and eventually they amended the truck light bars and mirrors so they could roll in and out without whacking the sides of the building.

Grissom compares the old structure, built in 1967, to the Winchester Mystery House. "We've added on here, added on there. ... We have so much more equipment now than when they first built the place."

The remodeled firehouse will provide enough room not only to park modern fire trucks, but also to service department vehicles, host trainings and store emergency equipment, including generators, Jaws of Life and disaster supplies.

The renovated building bears Callahan's trademark charm. "We don't do ugly," he grins. McFarland agrees, suggesting it might just be "the best looking firehouse in the county."

Area residents now pay a $42 tax assessment per parcel annually to support the fire department. Voters passed the fee with 86 percent approval in 2004, but it's due to sunset next year. Measure K on this year's ballot asks voters to bump that fee up to $75 annually to cover the remodel and support the department through 2023. The measure, which applies only to a subset of the community services district, must pass by a two-thirds vote.

For now, construction is being financed with $125,000 from the fire department's operating account, plus a loan, secured by the community services district, of up to $350,000, according to Rick Hanger, the district's general manager. Before backing the loan, the district board needed assurance, so the fire department sent out a survey to 400 Fieldbrook homes. Residents responded by a 10-to-one margin that they're willing to support the increase.

Hanger adds, "If the measure for some reason was not successful this year, we'd come back to the voters with something restructured. If it also were to fail, then what we would look at [is] extending the note for a longer period of time."

Callahan says it's a bargain. "The extra $33 per year works out to about nine cents a day for voters," he said. "If the beer drinkers at the general store threw down a quarter into the tip jar every day, we could fund this. It's not that much."

Grissom says you never know when you'll need the fire department. "And we're there. All the time." He kicks at the dirt, smiles at the ground, and repeats, "All the time."

Amy Barnes is a freelance writer and graphic designer who lives in Fieldbrook.

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