Assistant fire chief recalls early days

John Babcock is president and assistant fire chief of Ruhenstroth Volunteer Fire Department Station 10. He was elected in 1989, right after the volunteer fire department was formed. He shared the following experiences:

"Between 1984 and 1986 there was a series of wildland fires in the surrounding areas with a 17,000-acre one in Woodfords getting just a little too close to us," Babcock said. "During this same time, a neighbor (Lin Lake) lost his home to fire here. A group of neighbors got together after the few close calls and started talking about the need for a fire department in our neighborhood. Fellow resident Bob Dinsmore, Fire Marshall for Douglas County at that time who was also a part of the formation of the current East Fork Fire District, lent his expertise in getting our department started. Meetings took place over an eight- to 10-month period at various homes and culminated in our incorporation as a non-profit with the state on October 1, 1987."

It was very humble beginnings since "we had no building, no equipment, and no turnouts (the protective gear worn in firefighting). At first we met in founding member Paul Hill's garage. There were eight original founding members with Bill Hobbs as our first president and Bill Hutchison, retired Captain with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, as our first chief. Trainings and meetings were done in Hill's garage and at Hutchison's house. Our first piece of equipment was a retired Southwest Gas utility pickup truck; then Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District donated a 1976 International Brush Truck; and still we had no building. Actually our department wasn't in the long range plans for the development of the East Fork Fire District. Neighbor Phil Sullivan, a realtor, offered to talk to the Ruhenstroth Family Trust and was instrumental in brokering the deal with them to donate the land for a building. After a short time, Hobbs and Hutchison decided they wanted to stay retired and the members elected me as their president and then Terry (Hughes) as chief.

"We approached the county to ask for help in funding and were able to procure a $55,000 grant from the county commission for construction of the building in 1992. Steve Eisele, current deputy fire chief/fire marshall with East Fork Fire District, is a neighbor and was a member of our department back then. Steve along with engineer Mark Gonzales (Training Captain of Ruhenstroth Department), were responsible for the design of the original 60 by 40 barn. Several other volunteers including Granite Construction, who raised the foundation over a foot above the flood plain, and Walt Lee who built the building along with our own volunteer firefighters completed the interior - electrical wiring, kitchen, and walls - we definitely have a lot of sweat equity in this place.

"Early in our planning stages, then Chief Dan Hellwinkle, Douglas County Engine Company Volunteer Station in Minden, offered a challenge to us. He said, 'If you build a firehouse, I'll give you an engine.' Once we got the building completed he came through on the agreement and provided us with a 1967 American La France Engine which we leased for a dollar per year. It is in Lincoln County, Nev., still in use today with another volunteer fire department. From there we have expanded to the present size which allows us to be able to leave the station with 10,000 gallons of water on five vehicles - three water tenders along with two other engines. We have three water tenders because there is only one fire hydrant in our neighborhood, located in the front of the department. Our ability to carry 10,000 gallons of water to a site is a huge accomplishment. Recently we were given an ISO rating of three - which means the lower the number the cheaper your homeowner's insurance will be."

(The Insurance Service Organization provides data to your insurance agency on fire risks for your area. Be sure to check with your insurance company to see how much you can save.)

"This is the first volunteer fire department I've ever been involved in although I have always had an interest in it; and I was wondering just what I could do as a 40 year old, thinking firefighting was more for the younger ones. But we began as families coming together and have grown into an even larger extended family working together as a team. The men and women of Station 10 are my inspiration; and although we take our jobs very seriously, we still keep our families as first priority."

John and his wife, Debbie, have two daughters Amber and Cassie, and on April 10 welcomed grandson Ayden Alyn as the newest addition to their family. They are avid animal lovers with three horses, several dogs and cats along with iguanas, cockatiels and a potbellied pig, which is now an outside pet but in the beginning was housebroken and stayed inside. They enjoy camping as a family and getting out on Lake Topaz with our waverunners as well as horseback riding. When time permits, he likes to play a little golf; but he expects to be spending a lot of time with his new grandson. John retired after 34 years with Harrah's and a career opportunity with East Fork Fire District came up. He is currently in the Support Services Division. John is also the chairperson of the Volunteer Fire Chiefs Advisory Board. He's been with the United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra for close to 20 years as the Chairperson of the Community Impact Panel, which works with agency programs to determine how donor dollars are best invested.

When asked about memorable calls, John said "The Autumn Hills fire (June 23, 1996) and the Waterfall fire (July 2004) stick out because of the complexity and danger involved in fighting those two fires. Also a string of tragic and senseless auto accidents that resulted in loss of life on Highway 395 in 2003 that required the cooperation and skills of many other volunteer departments as well as career staff all working as one in a seamless operation. There aren't many departments that can put the amount of equipment and personnel together on a fire in such a cost-effective way.

"The volunteer system is not as robust as it once was, locally as well as on a nationwide basis - and I would like to encourage anyone interested in volunteer firefighting to check out You will see that the district has an incredible training program where you have the opportunity to do it all as part of the department with your only out-of-pocket cost being your time."

n The Ruhenstroth Volunteer Fire Department 15th Annual Bar-B-Q Dinner and Dance will be held Saturday, July 8. Dinner will be from 4 to 8 p.m. and then there will be auctions, games and dancing to midnight.

"It's our way of introducing ourselves to our neighbors as well as being able to meet our neighbors and just have fun at a big block party," said Babcock. "Sagewood, the neighborhood across Pinenut Road, is a part of our district and they join in the party, too. It's always a lot of fun."

Mark your calendars for a night of fun and visiting with new and old friends.

Have a Ramblin Good Week!

n To reach Gail Davis, e-mail or call 265-1947.


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