BY EILEEN PERSIKE
In May, 1977, a couple dozen Pine Lake men answered a call to organize a town fire department. Forty-one years later, three of the original crew are still answering calls. Fire Chief Brian Gehrig, Joe Dreifuerst and Terry Strong, who didn’t know each other well at the time, said signed up to be part of the department that very night.
“If back when I started they’d have told me I would be fighting fire with a camera, I would have told them they were nuts.”
– Pine Lake Fire Chief Brian Gehrig
Back then the city fire department responded to fires only within two miles of city borders and most of the other towns had their own departments. Starting from scratch, the men helped build what is today considered one of the best-equipped volunteer fire departments in the area.
“We had very crude, crude equipment,” Dreifuerst recalled. “They bought us an old truck that was built with wooden sides.”
“It wasn’t even a real fire pump on it,” Gehrig continued. “It was an agricultural pump on a 1947 Ford.”
“Within the next year or two we got an actual fire truck,” said Dreifuerst. “It was built as a fire truck and oh man, were we proud!”
In the late 70s, the price of fuel skyrocketed, leading many homeowners to begin burning wood. The men said they fought two or three chimney fires a week. One of the first and larger fires the department responded to was on Silver Lake in Sugar Camp. It, too, began as a chimney fire, and one the men admitted they “just did what we could.”
“The joke of the day back then was, we’d save the basement,” Strong said with a shake of his head.
“We were a rag tag operation the first couple years,” Dreifuerst said. “But we stuck with it and we got good training and actually became a pretty doggone good department.”
The equipment the crew has today, arguably some of the best in the county, is due in large part to their close proximity and relationship to the Hodag Country Fest, and the firefighters’ ability to fundraise.
“We’re fortunate to have a lot of fundraising through the country fest,” Strong said. “At [the beginning] we didn’t have a budget with the town. We used what we earned out there – that was the whole budget for the fire department.”
So much has changed in the 40 years the men have been part of the department. The 10-call telephone tree-type call out system has been replaced by the more efficient E-911 system and pagers. A first responders group began in 1980, which evolved into water rescue due to necessity, responding to automobile accidents led to the purchase of hydraulic equipment to extricate people from vehicles. As snowmobiles became faster and the department saw an increase in accidents, a snowmobile and rescue sled was added, and a utility terrain vehicle (UTV), and “because we got all the water around us, we had to buy a boat,” Gehrig said. “We pretty much adapt to our environment so to speak.”
Strong agreed. “Pretty much what we’ve done all along. We’re pretty much the catch-all for anything that goes wrong.”
Firefighting gear was hip-high boots, rubber coats, rubber gloves, plastic helmets and heavy steel air packs. Today members of the Pine Lake department not only have state-of-the art clothing, but also fiberglass composite tanks, facemasks personally fit with each member’s eye glass prescription and thermo-imaging cameras.
“I always kid everybody,” Gehrig said. “If back when I started they’d have told me I would be fighting fire with a camera, I would have told them they were nuts.”
But 40 years. What keeps them coming back? In a word, camaraderie.
“I like it – I’m retired, I come down here every morning and start the coffee pot up; it’s gotta get done, you know,” Dreifuerst joked.
Chief Gehrig said he does it because he enjoys it, it helps the community, and it’s something to share with the younger generation. “I see some of these kids coming up through the department who started out as junior firefighters and worked their way up. Both of my grandsons are junior members.”
“I just enjoy it,” Strong, who is also the department treasurer, said. “It’s like a family – it’s always been like that.”