Community potluck to honor several area rural fire departments

RICHARDTON -- When resident Bernie Staudinger watched her daughter Audrey Kuntz and son-in-law Jay Kuntz's house burn up in flames three years ago, she could see the emotions of area, rural firefighters battling the blaze.

RICHARDTON -- When resident Bernie Staudinger watched her daughter Audrey Kuntz and son-in-law Jay Kuntz's house burn up in flames three years ago, she could see the emotions of area, rural firefighters battling the blaze.

"I would never have believed the emotions present unless I hadn't seen it then," Staudinger said. "It was like it was their home and belongings they carried out. I even saw tears in some of their eyes when they found the cat in the home. They buried him so the family wouldn't have to deal with it."

People don't realize how much emergency personnel care, she added.

Staudinger came up with idea of thanking the members of the rural fire departments of Richardton, Taylor, Hebron and Gladstone, but was unable to see it through until now. In honor of those people who help in emergencies, a community potluck dinner is at noon on Sunday, Sept. 24, in the social center of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Richardton.

"This year, with all the firefighting going on, they have gone way beyond the call of duty," Staudinger said. "I'm hoping for a big turn out of people from all four communities and beyond with 300 to 400 people there and I've invited several pastors to speak, along with the fire chiefs."


Hebron Fire Chief Grant Walth said his department responded to about 10 fire calls this summer.

"Lightning struck more between Glen Ullin and Richardton and by-passed us, so we were lucky," Walth said.

Other departments weren't so fortunate.

"In a good year, we see only 15 fires for the whole year, while this year we responded to about 26 calls," Richardton Fire Chief Rod Aman said. "Recently, people here got to see a fire closer than (ever) before when we had one a mile west of town. People drove by it and saw how it can just take off with a cloud of smoke."

When it's over, the fighters are black from the smoke and tired, he added.

Neighboring Taylor Rural Fire Department had about 15 calls, said Taylor Fire Chief Kevin Zillich. Gladstone Fire Chief Joe Wanner said his department got from 16 to 18 calls, way above average.

"Not a lot of people realize what it takes to be a firefighter," Staudinger said. "As a community, there have been fires where all four departments fight together."

But none of the chiefs would give up fighting fires. Walth has been doing it for five years and has been Hebron fire chief for one year. Aman became a firefighter in 1982 and has been chief for 16 years. Zillich has been a firefighter since 1977 and chief for 15 years. Wanner has been chief 17 out of his 29 years fighting fires.


"I became a firefighter to give back something to the community," Walth said. "I envied firefighters when I was younger and now I like the feeling I get when helping people out."

At the time, it was the "in" thing to be one, said Aman about why he became a firefighter.

"I wouldn't give it up for anything," he added. "I enjoy things like going to daycares and schools to talk about fire prevention. Kids worship firefighters and love seeing the fire trucks."

For Zillich, becoming a firefighter was in his blood.

"My dad and uncle were both firemen and chiefs," Zillich said. "I come from a small community and this is a way for me to pitch-in and volunteer."

For Wanner, it was just the right place and time.

"It just happened and there's no real reason why I got involved except to serve the community," Wanner said.

Staudinger understands many of the firefighters work their regular jobs, and then jump to fight fires, "sometimes all night and going straight to work the next morning, which is amazing," she added.


Walth works in Bismarck, but has always lived in the Hebron area. Zillich is a farmer and rancher on his family's land south of Taylor. He commutes to work each morning since he lives in town. Wanner works in Dickinson at the Southwestern District Health Unit and uses a walkie-talkie to keep in contact with his department.

They don't get paid for their work as firefighters and they go way beyond the call of duty, Staudinger said.

With great reward comes risk, which each chief goes through with every fire.

"In my mind, I don't want my guys getting hurt and I always live with the fear that I have to go and tell the spouse, but I've never had to do it," Aman said. "Going into a fire, it's a rush; burning flames in your face going 25 feet in the air, the sound inside is like a tornado when it rumbles. People don't know that part."

A firefighter has to make split-second decisions and there's a lot of safety to watch out for as a chief, he added.

"A lot of farmers and ranchers are equipped enough too," Aman said. "Then there are the new guys in our department who never went to a fire and come back a different person when they go onto the next one."

Zillich remembers some of his first fires as a rookie.

"I remember a fire in Richardton at the Chevrolet building because I was young and new on the department," Zillich said.


Keeping the fire departments fully staffed with young and old members is a challenge. The Hebron Rural Fire Department has 36 fighters, Richardton has 28, Taylor has 18 to 20 and Gladstone has 22.

"Most on staff are veterans, but range from two to 40 years of service," Aman said about the Richardton Rural Fire Department. "It's hard to find people who stay around town, but it's always been good to work with other departments."

Firefighters are recruited, training for each is $100 and all firefighters are recertified, he added.

Wanner agrees there is always a need for more firefighters and encourages his men who move out of the Gladstone area to continue working in their new area's fire department.

"When I first started, I saw the disorganization in most departments, especially with rural ones, but over the past 30 years they've really advanced," Wanner said. "The training and equipment is better and structures are stronger than before. Training has contributed to that by putting more time into programs to make them more successful."

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