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Rural fire departments in Richardton, Taylor celebrate firefighters with more than 50 years of experience

Harlan Bloom, chairman of the Taylor Fire Board of Directors, presents a certificate to Paul Larsen for more than 50 years of service with the Taylor Fire Protection District. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)1 / 3
Frank Zillich, left, his brother John Zillich, center, and Paul Larsen, each members of the Taylor Fire Protection District hold up their certificates of service. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)2 / 3
Leo Krenzel poses in front of a Richardton Fire District firetruck. Krenzel will retire from the department with 50 years of service. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)3 / 3

When 20-year-old Frank Zillich arrived home from World War II in 1946 he heard that the fire department in Taylor was looking for volunteers, so he joined. Seventy years later, he has no thoughts of slowing down.

"I'll keep on 'til they put me in a box," Frank said. "I'll make it a point to drive the trucks, or if it really gets (to be where) there should be some younger guys that (should) to be climbing around (more) I'm going to back up a little bit, but not yet."

Frank is just one of several firefighters on the Taylor Fire Protection District that has an extensive amount of experience. Frank's brother, John, was forced to retire from the department with more than 60 years of firefighting experience in July of 2016 after he said he fell and broke his hip.

John said he never really sought out being a firefighter, he "just kind of fell into it" after a farmer's barn burned down. He said even though he wasn't a firefighter at that time, he stayed with the family all night to make sure the fire was completely out and that everyone was safe.

"They made me join then," John said with a chuckle.

The rural department got its first truck, a 1956 Dodge firetruck, in 1959, which was the same year the TFPD was organized.

Paul Larsen, another member of the TFPD, started fighting fires in 1964. He said he was lucky to have mentors like his father, John, and Frank.

Larsen said one of the biggest changes he's seen over the past 50 years is the way equipment has developed. One the first major fires Larsen responded to started near Heart River in 1965 and went into a ranch he now owns. Due to the amount of creeks that were on the land it was too difficult to drive the firetruck there, so they were forced to pair up and put out the fire, which went for about 2 miles, using backpacks that contained 5 gallons of water. They used one hand to pump the water and the other to aim the hose. Larsen said they had to stop every so often to refill the backpacks using water from the creeks.

"We were lucky we got it shut down before it got to a farmstead, but it was pretty wild," Larsen said. "... The young guys now on the department, they have some pretty fancy equipment, but that's great."

Frank recalled a house fire when they didn't have any equipment. He said he had to crawl on the floor up to the basement door since the holes outside to the basement were too small for a person. However, due to the lack of smoke masks, it became too hard for him breathe, so he was forced to turn back and just let the fire continue to burn.

Larsen also recalled a fire when they didn't have any airpacks. He said his father and Frank had to crawl up the steps until they couldn't make it any further because it was so smokey.

"If we would have had an airpack and a fire extinguisher, we could have gone and put the fire out," Larsen said. "It didn't burn down—the last time I went into the house I can remember the water coming down the upstairs steps was (several inches) deep."

Frank said they didn't even have fire coats until he was around 40 years old. Before that they didn't really have protective gear.

Today the department has several trucks that are all equipped with four-wheel drive. They also use radios to communicate, rather than listening for a fire whistle, and have an extensive amount of gear that they wear in order to stay as safe as possible.

Frank said the way they fight fires has changed as well. He said he's been all over the state for hands on training days. He said for about 20 years they would fight fires using a "high-pressure fog" method that would help smother grass fires out, now fire departments across the country have switched to a foam method.

Richardton firefighter retires with 50 years

Richardton Rural Fire Department has a group of firefighters with a more than 100 years of combined service that will be retiring this year. Leo Krenzel has been with the department for 50 years.

Krenzel, a lifelong Richardton resident, said one of his more memorable fires was when the Richardton grocery store caught on fire. He said he was in the basement putting the fire out, once he thought the fire was out the other firefighters upstairs opened the door. However, Krenzel said he quickly yelled out for them to close it because the fire started right back up again.

Krenzel said he wasn't sure why he joined the fire department, other than he knew he wanted to be able to help the community in some way. He kept going because he knew he was a part of a team.

"They needed me and I didn't have anything else to do," Krenzel said. "... If you've been around 50 years, that's a long time. ... It's the only thing I can ever remember doing."

When Krenzel first started they only had one truck, now they have six or seven large trucks that they can take on calls. He said while he's looking forward to retirement, he'll always lend a hand when it's needed.

"If I'm still around I'll help out," he said.

Jason Kostelecky, Richardton's fire chief, said they'll miss having Krenzel around if not for his experience, then definitely for his cooking, he laughed. Krenzel has traditionally made meals for the group, including Thanksgiving. Kostelecky said it will be different not having people like Krenzel around when they go on calls.

"It's really special when these guys reach a milestone," he said. "It doesn't happen very often. It deserves to be celebrated."

For the love of family, community

Ryan Berger, TFPD Chief, said volunteer firefighters are essential to the wellbeing of their communities.

"The service that they've given to their communities, their county, their state is crazy," he said. "Without that the safety of the community would definitely not be there. So, hopefully there will be more that continue on."

Harlan Bloom, chairman of the department's board of directors, echoed Berger's comments, and added that the volunteers often have to spend time away from their businesses and families in order to continue fighting fires.

"It's just amazing how much time they actually do put in," Bloom said. "Even though you might only have 10 fires, maybe 15 at the most a year, it's still a lot of time."

For many involved with the department, fighting fires has become a bit of a family affair. John was fire chief for many years until 1995 when he handed the reins over to his son, Kevin. Now Kevin and his son are on the fire department as well.

One thing Taylor's department prides itself on is that over the past 70 years no one has ever died or been badly injured in a fire, including citizens.

"We never lost a life in a structure fire," Larsen said. "We've been awful fortunate, really fortunate."

However, their service stretches beyond just the fire department. John has also sat on the Taylor City Council, served as mayor and drove a school bus for more than 40 years. John said he enjoyed being able to serve his community for so long.

"I guess I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it," he said with a small laugh.

Berger said there is a sense of camaraderie and passion that comes with being a volunteer fireman.

"There's a sense of commitment and camaraderie that really gets developed and stays in there. Just like these guys staying for all these years, I mean we're not going to be get rid of Frank for at least another 10 years," he said as they all laughed.

Frank said he enjoys knowing that he is helping others by doing what he has been doing for the past 70 years.

"The nice thing about it is when you get to a fire and get control of it, people, they think you've done something, you've saved their home or their property and it's good. ... It's just kind of gets in your blood I think. It just becomes something you do."

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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