After digging out of the mud and rising from the ashes, GVFD is better, stronger one year after double disasters struck
A year ago at this time, about the only thing the Gainesville Volunteer Fire Department had going for it was its dedicated volunteers – and a city council determined to help GVFD get back on its feet after double catastrophes. Its building and more than $400,000 worth of equipment were gone, destroyed by a late-April flood followed a month later by a fire.
It’s a different story today. GVFD chief Ed Doiron said last week that, although the recovery is still ongoing, in many ways, the department is stronger and better equipped than it was before the flood and the fire. And, he said, the past year’s journey back to “normal” has been a gratifying experience for everyone involved.
The first part of the double catastrophe began Friday afternoon, April 29, 2017. After torrential rain had fallen around the county that day and the previous night, residents were amazed by water levels in creeks and rivers that no living person had seen before.
When the high water reached Lick Creek, which joins Becky Cobb Creek in Gainesville, Doiron and fellow Gainesville VFD firefighter Sage McGinnis had come to the firehouse, which then was the former White River Valley Electric Coop building at Highway 160 and County Road 503, a stone’s throw from Lick Creek and what is known locally as the Cheese Plant Bridge. The two men left to set up barricades on the low-water bridge on North Main Street, and when they returned to the firehouse they were shocked to see the water of Lick Creek lapping at the top of the retaining wall on the south edge of the fire department’s parking lot.
No one had ever seen the water that high on the 4 1/2-foot wall. When Gainesville purchased the building from WRVEC less than a decade earlier, the city was required to build the retaining wall to qualify for a government grant. At the time, few people saw the need for the wall to be that tall since the creek had never risen that high.
That afternoon of April 29, 2017, Doiron took a photo of the water lapping against the wall, and then, as he and McGinnis watched, the water spilled over it.
They were able to save the main firetruck, as well as a ladder truck and a big green brush truck before the rising water became too deep to save the department’s pickup truck. That vehicle, along with everything else in the firehouse, was quickly submerged. “We didn’t even have time to shut the doors,” Doiron said in a May 17, 2017, article in the Times. The water rose to 62 inches inside the building, ruining the classroom and office flooring and the equipment stored in the truck bay, including 15 sets of turnout gear, four generators, an air compressor, breathing apparatus, office equipment, a pallet of bottled water and 18 smoke detectors from the American Red Cross that were to be installed in Ozark County homes.
Some of the department’s items were later found a few miles down Lick Creek near Mammoth.
It was a hard loss, seeing the valuable equipment and gear damaged and destroyed. Still, Doiron said in the 2017 interview, “We are a fully functional fire department.”
That functionality would be challenged a few hours later that Friday, when GVFD responded in mutual aid to Tecumseh VFD, which was struggling to respond to dozens of calls, including frantic pleas from residents on James Lane who needed to be rescued from the rising waters of the North Fork of the White River.
Doiron and other GVFD firefighters headed east on Highway 160 toward the Dawt area, hoping to help. The Gainesville firetruck they had saved from the flood “was the last to go over the Tecumseh Bridge before they closed it” due to high water over the approach to the bridge, Doiron said. The Gainesville volunteers never made it to James Lane, though, because by then, the nearby James Bridge had washed away, closing access to the riverside neighborhood.
The historic flood caused unprecedented damage throughout the area. In addition to the collapse of the James Bridge, another tall, massive bridge over the North Fork, the one on CC Highway by what is known locally as Hammond campground, also fell during the night. Houses along the river were washed away or destroyed beyond repair.
With the Tecumseh Bridge closed, “we had to come back through Mountain Home [Arkansas], going down Highway 101 and coming back on Highway 5,” Doiron said. [The more frequently used route on J Highway was closed due to high water around the Lick Creek Bridge.] “We filled up with fuel while we were down there because we knew the pumps at the stations back here were flooded.”
Back in Gainesville, Doiron and the other members of the department took stock of the equipment they had left. The inventory included five sets of protective turnout gear for the department’s 12 volunteers. Two sets had been in the truck McGinnis had driven out of the flooded firehouse, Doiron had grabbed two more from the rack as he was getting into one of the other trucks, and one firefighter had a set at his home.
The overwhelming job of cleaning up began as soon as the rain stopped falling. By the time Doiron reported to the city council at its May 8 meeting, he could say that local volunteers, including area residents, GVFD members, members of the Point Lookout Fire Department at College of the Ozarks and city councilman Lee Bowen had cleaned several inches of mud and debris from the building’s parking bays so the firetrucks could again be housed inside. Other Ozark County fire departments had also helped in several ways, he said.
The city did not carry flood insurance on the firehouse. At some point in the past, the building had been insured against floods, probably when the city was applying for the grant, but eventually the policy had been allowed to lapse since high water had never been a serious problem.
Then, 30 days after the flood, Doiron was awakened by a page from the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department dispatcher at a little before 2 a.m. on Tuesday, May 30. The dispatcher said, “Attention, Gainesville Fire Department. Attention, Gainesville Fire Department. The fire department is on fire.”
As Doiron headed out the front door of his home on Fourth Street, he looked down the hill and saw glowing billows of smoke rising into the night sky.
He radioed a request for mutual aid, and Pontiac / Price Place VFD’s then-chief Al Davidson and his wife, Sharon, also a firefighter, arrived in their department’s firetrucks within 12 minutes, Doiron said. Timber Knob, Caney Mountain and Lick Creek VFDs also responded.
“When I got there, the doors to the truck bays had opened by themselves, and I could see that the ladder truck was fully involved and the pumper [truck] was starting to burn,” he said. The third truck, a big green Stewart Stevenson brush truck, was saved “because Pontiac got there fast enough to put water on it.”
Although the brush truck itself was saved, all the equipment on it – leaf blowers, water tank and other gear – was lost. So was all the other department equipment, which had an estimated value of $425,000 excluding the vehicles.
The department’s pickup, which had been damaged in the flood, was parked outside the firehouse and survived the blaze.
After the fire was extinguished shortly before dawn, Doiron stayed on scene “trying to keep it together and talking to the news people who came down.” The story made headlines not only here but in Springfield and throughout the state.
Doiron finally went home between 4 and 5 p.m., admitting that he was close to tears as he realized what had been lost.
The state fire marshal’s office investigated, but the cause of the fire was never determined. It’s believed to have started with an electrical problem in the charging apparatus that was plugged into one of the trucks.
Other Ozark County fire departments stepped in to respond to emergency calls here while the Gainesville department was rebuilding, a process that began almost immediately.
While the city hadn’t carried flood insurance on the GVFD building, it did have fire insurance. On June 9, 10 days after the fire, Doiron picked up a used firetruck, fully equipped, that the city bought from the Republic Fire Department for $25,000.
The next day, June 10, GVFD responded in mutual aid to its first call since the fire: a concrete-truck rollover accident near Hardenville.
A few days later, the city got a call from the Robertson Fire Protection District near St. Louis. That department was replacing its rescue pumper (a traditional firetruck that also carried extrication equipment, commonly referred to as the “jaws of life”). The department had listed it for sale for $80,000, but the department’s board members reconsidered when they heard what had happened in Gainesville. “They said, ‘Just give it to them,’” Doiron said. “They said it would be going to a deserving place, so they just gave it to us.”
Doiron happily picked up the truck in mid-July 2017. But on the drive back to Gainesville, a wheel bearing went out, and the firetruck had to be towed. The repairs were expensive – but not as expensive as buying a new truck, he said.
Like the truck that was purchased from Republic, this one came fully equipped and has both floodlights and a light tower equipped with six 1,500-watt lights.
So now the department has two firefighting trucks plus the pickup that was repaired after the flood and saved from the fire. It also has the big green brush truck that’s awaiting repairs. If city council approves it, Doiron plans to apply for a grant that will let the department buy a new or used ladder truck to replace the one that was lost.
The department has also acquired equipment it didn’t have before, including thermal-imaging devices that help firefighters “see” inside burning structures.
Insurance money was used to order replacement gear and equipment, some of which the department is still waiting on.
Things were coming together, but last fall, Doiron worried about the coming winter. The department’s two replacement firetrucks were parked outside on the parking lot of the now-demolished firehouse. He worried that, in cold winter temperatures, the vehicles’ pumps would freeze, requiring repairs or replacement that could cost between $20,000 and $50,000.
In response to his concerns, last September, the city council bought a metal garage-type building at Highways 160 and 5 south for $140,000. The building is a good fit for the department’s needs, Doiron said. It’s not centrally located, as the old building was, meaning the response time may be a little longer, in some cases, but the department has a plan in place to help expedite its response as much as possible.
“Whenever there’s a fire call, everyone comes to the firehouse – unless I say different,” Doiron said. “Who-ever gets here first [after being toned out by the sheriff’s office], opens the doors, starts the trucks and gets their gear on. Everyone in the department can drive the trucks. Everyone does pumper and driver training, so if they need to, anyone can drive. No one in the department has driven a truck without going out with me or with [assistance chief] John Russo. New people must have a senior person with them unless there’s no one else around, and then there are restrictions, including no lights and siren until you get experience.”
Another recent improvement has been a paging system set up by McGinnis that sends alerts to firefighters’ cell phones in addition to the sheriff’s radio system. Gainesville VFD has shared the system with all other county fire departments that have requested it.
Gainesville mayor Gail Reich said Monday she’s “really proud of the guys,” referring to the department’s volunteers who’ve helped the fire department recover from last year’s destruction. “We’re recovered 99.99 percent, and we’re up and running even better than we were before the fire,” she said. “The guys have done a fantastic job getting us through this, and Ed has done a great job finding stuff and saving money.”
Reich is also glad that, in recent years, the department has been classified as an all-volunteer rural department, which means it can respond in mutual aid to emergencies outside the city limits, something that used to be prohibited.
“We did get insurance money, and that’s helped replace some of the things. But it took years to build up all the equipment they had, and it’s taking awhile to get everything replaced. And everything is expensive. For example, the air compressor to fill their breathing units cost $20,000. A lot of stuff has been ordered but some hasn’t come in yet,” she said. “And we’re still hoping to get a ladder truck.”
Doiron is hoping the recent work to restore and upgrade the fire department will result in a lower ISO rating, which insurance companies use to set policyholders’ rates. Right now Gainesville’s rating is a 7; Doiron is hoping to get it closer to 5.
Grateful for the help
Doiron is grateful for the help of community residents, the 10 other GVFD members of GVFD, the staff at City Hall and the Gainesville City Council, which he says “has been awesome about supporting us and especially about getting us back under cover before winter.”
He says he’s especially gratified by the response from what he calls the fire service community. “It’s amazing how well the fire service comes together and supports their own when things like this happen,” he said.
Doiron, who has served as Gainesville VFD chief since July 2015 and served previously in the position from 2006 until resigning in 2012, knows that fire service community well. He grew up in Connecticut hanging out in the firehouse where his dad served as a paid firefighter. And now, he says, “I’ve been doing this so long, I wouldn’t know anything else to do,” he said.
Asked why volunteers are willing to serve in what can be demanding and sometimes heartrending work, Doiron acknowledged that emergency service can be a strange contradiction for those who work in it.
“We have a saying,” he said. “’We love what we do, but sometimes we hate having to do it.’”