Volunteers answer calls to fight fires
It was a bitter night to fight a fire.
"It was horrible," said firefighter Jaime Paine. "Ice was everywhere. We had people falling down."
With temperatures dipping into the teens and wind chills just above zero battling the four-apartment fire on Feb. 14 was difficult.
Firefighters were called about 9:45 p.m.
"That apartment was involved," said fire chief Charlie Conrad. "We had heavy smoke showing."
It took about an hour for firefighters to bring the blaze under control.
They left the scene about 1:30 a.m.
"There was a possibility of a rekindle," Conrad said. "But we went through each apartment individually and knocked down the hot spots that we could see. We didn't see any smoke."
Conrad returned to the scene about 3 a.m.
"Still, I didn't see any signs of smoke," he said. "About 4:45, we get called for rekindle, and it was fully involved. I have never seen anything rekindle like that in my life."
When firefighters left the first time, he said, two apartments were destroyed, along with the second floor of two others.
"The lower floors in Apartments C and D were damaged by smoke and water," he said. "A lot of it was probably totaled. It wasn't like that when we left the second time.
"It's heartbreaking for us. We felt like we had saved something for them."
Conrad, now 45, has been on the Tonganoxie volunteer fire department since he was a senior in high school. He said he doubts many people know that all but one of the Tonganoxie firefighters on the scene at the apartment fire were volunteers.
"The public expects you to perform like a full-time department," he said.
"It puts a lot of pressure back on the volunteers. People made $5 working all night in 19-degree temperatures, and they got paid another $5 for putting on their wet bunker gear to go back for the rekindle. My hands were so cold they hurt."
But Conrad's not complaining and neither would his volunteers. He's proud of their department.
He noted that the first fire truck was on the scene four minutes after the fire was called in.
"That's very good for a volunteer system," said Conrad, who also works for Leavenworth County Emergency Management Services.
Within seven minutes, three fire trucks and 15 people were working, slipping and sliding on thick ice that spread across the concrete and grass.
The fire department's $80,000 budget covers one firefighter's salary, as well as payments on its building and trucks.
This is the worst fire in Tonganoxie since July 4, 1975, when a gasoline station at Fourth and Delaware streets burned.
"That was a big one," Conrad said.
After more than 27 years as a volunteer firefighter, Conrad still loves the job despite working under conditions such as at Cedar Hills apartments.
"I thrive on it," he said. "It keeps me going. I hate to see tragedy. I hate to see trauma. But when you get the chance to help somebody, it keeps you going. It's for the community."
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