Woodfords firefighter responds to alarm
R-C Alpine Bureau
He was deer hunting in Bridgeport when it happened. His wife was alone at home and the smoke detectors went off and wouldn’t stop. His friends, including Dan Doyal, Clint Celio, Tony Galvez, and Skip Veatch had always talked to him about how important it was to be a member of the Woodfords Volunteer Fire Department. This event brought home what they had said to him. “They basically guilted me into joining after handling the smoke detector call while I was away.” said the current Assistant Fire Chief Buck McLelland.
Buck started with Alpine County Search and Rescue about 12 years ago, and then joined the Fire Department. Typical of the ebb and flow of an all-volunteer organization, Buck joined at a low point when only about four volunteers were there. When Clint Celio had to step down, Buck found himself in charge, perhaps the first Chief who had never been out on an actual fire. But the experience and training came quickly, and as a natural in the field, Buck is now widely praised for his abilities to access and take control of any type of incident.
Initially Buck was fortunate enough to have Chief Jeff Michaels from Lake Valley and Todd Carlini to help give him the insight he needed. They told him what he was doing wrong, and also what he was doing right. Buck set up regular trainings with visiting instructor Bryan Beadnell. “He was the right person at the right moment.” says Buck “You have to utilize a volunteer’s time wisely. Bryan was part of the management team at 911, and is an exuberant individual.” Bryan injected enthusiasm into the meetings, and soon Mono County personnel were coming over. There were up to 30 people per session. Buck got funding from BLM grants and the County to continue trainings.
When this era came to an end, the County hired Terry Hughes as Chief, combining the previously separate Markleeville and Woodfords Fire Departments into the new Eastern Alpine Fire/Rescue. Hughes was a Volunteer Chief with the East Fork Fire District for years, and is an incredible fit for the department. Terry has continued to organize the trainings, teaching them himself and also bringing in other experts. He has taken over the political aspect of running a fire/rescue organization. Since he has been handling this, a new sense of stability and continuity has developed. Alpine County paid for two new engines and a water tender around 2008-2009, and the updated equipment has been a real plus.
Chief Hughes and Assistant Chief McLelland have taken the cooperative element of Eastern Alpine Fire/Rescue to a new level. They have developed strong relationships with East Fork Fire/Rescue, Lake Valley Fire District, CalFire, and the Forest Service. Two of the new sheriff deputies now attend their trainings. At the recent East Fork Resort fire, law enforcement personnel were pulling hose and CHP officers organized the evacuations. The important part to Hughes and McLelland is that they are all working together for a common goal.
Hughes also coordinates the Lake Tahoe Community College Fire Training Academy. A lot of the current volunteers go through the program, and take the fire equipment up to train at the college. Each session, about 3 graduates come to join Eastern Alpine to complete their practical training hours. This infuses the department with new energy and current ideas.
It is a “unique dynamic” being part of the rescue team here in Alpine County. Buck states that “People are not numbers, they are names and faces. Sometimes we may not know the address: we just know the house and the family. There is a personal level here that you do not find in larger communities. We have had to perform CPR on close friends, extricate family members from vehicles, and break the news of an auto fatality to our dearest neighbors.” It has made difficult situations even more brutal. The fire and rescue workers here have big hearts, but both Terry and Buck insure that critical stress debriefing is utilized, and that the group watches out for each other.
Buck and his wife Michelle were both born in South Lake Tahoe. Michelle is 4th generation: her family ran Lukins Brother’s Water District. Buck’s grandfather started the Tahoe Paradise development, purchasing the land from the Celio family. Buck and Michelle found their lot in Woodfords on a rainy autumn day. It reminded them of what it felt like growing up in Tahoe. They bought the land from Dan Doyal, and he built their home.
Now Buck and Michelle have 2 daughters who attend Diamond Valley School, where Michelle works. Buck does not mind the commute over Luther Pass for his day job as a Pump Station Operator at South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District. Both feel it is a great place to raise their children. It is far enough away to have a strong sense of privacy but close enough to be able to get into town when you have to.
Buck also manages a traveling softball team, the “Nevada Hotshots”.
As with all dedicated and community-involved individuals, Buck has a lot of sleepless nights. You never know when and where something will happen. Because all the volunteers have busy lives filled with job and family responsibilities, you also never know who will be there. When there is a call-out, it could be just you, or it could be 20 people. About 80 percent of the calls are medical or vehicle trauma related. Only about 5 percent are fire-related, but when those calls happen, they are big. The average response is about four volunteers.
Buck says that the group as a whole is most important. They have weekly training, and volunteer Mike Gard cooks one of his famous dinners. Buck says he likes the meetings to be fun, because the incidents themselves can be intense. Train all you want, but actually being on scene is different. Eastern Alpine has volunteers that have diverse careers. They can be engineers, entrepreneurs, road-workers, chefs, or about any occupation you can think of. There are a wide range of interests and areas of expertise, and all of these people bring their own knowledge, skill, and insight into the mix. Many have been with the department a long time now. Currently there are 25 members, including the Chief, who are willing to risk life and limb to make a difference. Our community is appreciative of all the hours of selfless service that our Fire/Rescue volunteers have given, all the individuals they have saved, and all the homes they have protected from raging wildfires. We have had a lot of recent incidents, and I have been impressed and grateful for the coordinated, rapid, and intelligent response of the cooperative agencies that now work together to protect the people and land of Alpine County.