REGIONAL- If a fire breaks out this coming weekend somewhere in the unorganized townships around Greaney, Silverdale, and Rauch, Barry Polich and Dennis Udovich won’t be rushing to the rescue …
REGIONAL- If a fire breaks out this coming weekend somewhere in the unorganized townships around Greaney, Silverdale, and Rauch, Barry Polich and Dennis Udovich won’t be rushing to the rescue one more time.
Someone else will have to answer the call, because the Greaney-Rauch-Silverdale Fire Department, a stalwart in the area since 1983, is shutting down operations on Friday, a reluctant casualty of changing times and changing demographics in a sparsely-populated region of the county.
“There are less and less people who live in the community,” said Polich, the department’s chief. “There’s hardly any young people left here coming up. We’re all getting older, like Dennis and I. We’d love to see it continue to go, but I don’t see anybody left here to step up.”
Unlike many other departments in the area, the GRSFD has been a subscription-based service, with property owners paying an annual fee to fund department operations. Assistant chief Udovich said that prior to the recent meeting where they voted to disband, they sent out 150 letters notifying people of the meeting.
“We had only two residents show up,” Udovich said.
He explained that in an area with predominantly older residents, meetings have been getting smaller and smaller as some people moved away and others died. Polich often tried boosting attendance by coming up with door prizes, Udovich said, but it was a ruse that sparked their biggest turnout.
“We put it out on the street, we told people, ‘Don’t tell anybody but we’re gonna have a meeting and we’re gonna double our wages,” Udovich chuckled. “And oh, man, that place was just full! We got going and pretty soon somebody raised her hand and said, ‘What are the wages gonna go up to?’ I said ‘We’re going to double it.’ She said, ‘What is it?’ I told her zero, and it’s still going to be zero. ‘Well, why are we at this meeting?’ she said. I said, ‘Guys, we told you this was a gimmick to get you in the door.’”
Udovich said he received two calls from people wanting to donate money.
“It is not a money issue,” he said. “We’ve got good equipment, we have everything here. We’ve got money in the bank. We’re in good shape.”
Udovich has been with the department since it was organized in 1983. They got donations of equipment to get started, and Udovich’s sawmill, Midwest Cedar, cut the lumber for the building where the trucks were stored.
“We had a great bunch,” Udovich said. “Tommy Ollikkala was one of the first fire chiefs. He actually worked for the county, and he was their main man right over here. I went to school with him. He was the chief here for a long time until he decided to move up to International Falls.”
And in the beginning, finding volunteer firefighters wasn’t too hard.
“You’ve got to remember, there were a lot of people living out here,” Udovich said. “I’ve been the sexton at the Greaney Cemetery for 30 years, so I’ve buried a lot of people who were involved here, you know, younger and older.”
And therein lies the current dilemma. Many faithful volunteers have passed on, without younger ones to replace them.
“It’s just like an era that’s gone by – things have changed,” Polich said. “There’s nothing here for young people. There hasn’t been anything here for young people for a long time. There’s no jobs close by. Give me a reason for them to live out here. That being said, it’s sad to see [the department] go, but you begin to wonder, if there’s nobody here, why do you need it?”
The department has faced threats to existence in the past and overcome them. When finances were an issue in 2002 and some were suggesting they should abandon the subscription system and start levying a property tax, members of the department who didn’t believe such a system would be fair to larger property owners rallied and got the department back on good footing. Money and volunteers would be a challenge again, but a 2010 article in the Timberjay touted a department that had once again persevered and was on solid footing for the future.
And the department also helped to stabilize the adjacent community center by combining resources to save on utilities, insurance, and upkeep.
One reason the department has remained effective is that they’ve upgraded their equipment whenever they could.
“This fire department since its inception has constantly upgraded from what we had to start with,” Polich said. “Look at those trucks out there. They’re fairly modern. They’re in compliance with what every rural department would have, like our six-wheel drive, diesel automatic tanker truck.”
An even newer-looking red pumper truck sits next to the hulking green tanker in the truck shed. It’s a prototype model that’s had some significant upgrades.
“There was about $100,000 they put into this thing and we only had to pay out of pocket about 50 something, right, Barry? So that was a good deal on doing that upgrade,” Udovich said.
But if someone out there is looking for a good fire truck, don’t call the GRSFD about these. They’re not for sale.
While the department is ceasing operations, they’re going to hang onto what they have for a while. Polich and Udovich still hold out hope that some type of service can be based there.
“We don’t need the money,” Udovich said. “And the idea is that maybe, you know, my great uncle said, ‘People will be moving back here, because this is God’s place.’ We’re seeing some newbies come in. One new guy that we tried to approach, he was younger than us, but he said, ‘I served my time. I don’t want to do it.’ But maybe, you know, we’re knocking on doors all the time.”
The pair may also explore possibilities of using the station as a satellite location for another department, such as Orr, Cook, or Nett Lake, but it’s too soon since the closure vote for that to be any more than an idea at the moment.
And while operations are shutting down, at least for now, Polich believes the GRSFD has been a good success story.
“We watched this thing grow, and we took it to another level,” he said. “It was a lot of hard work, but there’s satisfaction in it that we succeeded in doing that. You set goals and if you can achieve them everybody is able to benefit from it. That’s the goal of community. That’s the goal of all this, and that’s why we feel a little bad, as we hope it will continue to go on, for the community to appreciate what people before them and during them and after them have worked to achieve.”