A look at Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department -- yesterday and today

Mary Bullwinkel

Beacon Correspondent

With a combined firefighting experience of almost 100 years, three Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department representatives earlier this week talked about the past and the present and the many changes that have occurred over the years.

Retired Fire Chief Frank Hizer, current Assistant Fire Chief Rus Brown, and Department secretary and 18-year volunteer Ricky Ruud were part of the "Conversations at the Depot" series, sponsored by the Fortuna Historical Commission and the Depot Museum in Fortuna.

The three talked about a number of changes to the Volunteer Fire Department since they each became involved. "We had to go to a paid fire chief position a while back, and Chief Lon (Winburn) has done an excellent job," Brown said. "It's been a great department for many, many years," he added.

The next change coming might be paid firefighters, as the department currently has difficulty in volunteers being able to respond to fire calls during the day. And this is something other small local volunteer fire departments are also looking into.

"When I started in the Fortuna Fire Department," Brown said, "more than half of the volunteers worked at PL (Pacific Lumber) and Eel River Sawmills, and they'd let us go anytime (there was a fire call)." Today there are few firefighters who can respond during the day.

Hizer remembers when most of the 40 to 60 volunteers in the fire department were Fortuna business owners. Back in the day he said, "I left with half a haircut ... and all the doors on Main Street were flying open" (with volunteers responding to a fire call).

Brown said he felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to be part of the good old days, and also to experience the transition to a more modern department. Brown is in charge of all the training in the department, which there is much more of today than in the past.

"Training has done wonders," he said. "Our first job is not to put the fire out, it's to make sure that every fire fighter comes home that day." He noted his belief that someone looks out over the firefighters when they get a call. "It's a brotherhood and sisterhood and we're all in it together," Brown said of the volunteer firefighters.

He said every volunteer has their own way of dealing with the stress of the job. "Some yell, scream, throw things," Brown said, "and others go back to fire hall, share a six-pack and then go home." When asked how he specifically handles the stress he said, "A 12-pack of beer, a shotgun, a stack of clay pigeons, and I go shoot stuff."

They all point out the importance of a supportive spouse and family, each noting that there is no predicting when a call will come in. Brown said he once left his daughter's wedding and responded to a structure fire in Hydesville in his tuxedo. "I was the best-dressed firefighter there," he said with a chuckle, and added, "when you leave, you could be back in 15 minutes or it could be six hours, you never know."

The bottom line of being in the Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department is "having a great feeling of knowing you are helping someone," Hizer said, and Brown agrees. "I want to help people," he said. "Could I sit home when someone needs help and not go? No, I can't."

"Conversations at the Depot" take place every other month at the Depot Museum in Fortuna. "This is an exciting opportunity to preserve and tell local stories, and bring people in to the Museum," said museum curator Alex Service.

photo captions:

Photos by Heather Nyberg-Schlotzhauer/Beacon

1. A warm-hearted crowd gathered inside the Fortuna Depot Museum to listen to Ricky Ruud, Frank Hizer, and Russ Brown of the Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department share stories of rescue, tragedy, warmth, and life long friendship.

2. Ricky Ruud (left), Frank Hizer (middle), and Russ Brown (right) share a moment of laughter during a question and answer moment during their historical Fortuna Fire Department talk at the Fortuna Home Depot.