On Hat Island, firefighters volunteer for the love of it

  • Thu May 17th, 2012 8:55pm
  • News

By Rikki King Herald Writer

HAT ISLAND — On drill day, the Hat Island firefighters got a “call” before they even got to the station.

The younger ones, with jobs and homes on the mainland, took the ferry from Everett to the marina, where a dusty old Chevy waited.

As they climbed in, a woman interrupted.

She needed help lifting her dog into her car. Her husband was injured. She couldn’t do it alone.

The firefighters jumped back out of the Chevy — no problem.

It was the first of many such scenes on Saturday during drill day at Snohomish County Fire District 27 on Hat Island.

The fun, funky, invite-only island lies in Possession Sound between Everett and Whidbey Island. Roughly a square mile in area, the island is home to about 40 people full-time. Hundreds more come for weekends, summers and holidays.

The fire department has 27 volunteers, a quarter of them women.

Who responds to emergencies? Whoever’s around.

Islanders describe themselves as independent, pioneering. There are no stores. Gas is sold only on Saturdays, during the noon hour.

The firefighters are called for help about 30 times a year, mostly between May and October.

They get no pay, no fancy equipment and not too many big, smoky blazes.

They volunteer to give back, and because they love it.

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The Hat Island fire station doesn’t have a number. It’s just “the station.”

The fire rigs are vintage and spotless.

The department’s annual budget rarely breaks six figures, Fire Chief Michael Worthy said. Most vehicles and equipment are donated or received as surplus from departments around Western Washington.

The island’s roads aren’t paved. They wrap around breathtaking bluffs and sandy, storm-tossed beaches. Driving the rigs on the island takes practice — and courage.

During an emergency, sirens blare from three spots on the island, said firefighter Scott Murphy, 24, of Federal Way.

The crews usually know the person needing aid, he said. It makes patient confidentiality more difficult, but also more precious.

Everyone on the island tends to show up at emergencies, fire Capt. Mike Harris said. They want to help.

The firefighters are called for the occasional cut finger or allergic reaction, and a lot of ladder falls. On Saturday, they spent time going over emergency treatment for strokes and related symptoms.

Those who need advanced care are taken to a mainland hospital via private boat or medical helicopter, Worthy said. The chopper usually lands on the third fairway of the golf course, behind the station.

The firefighters know what resources they could request from surrounding police and fire agencies — and how long it would take for help to arrive, in good weather and bad.

Often, “it’s all us, and we know that,” Worthy said.

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Saturday’s drill was routine: training for a one-car crash, caused by a medical problem.

The “patient,” junior firefighter Nick Beecher, 17, kept his eyes squeezed shut as the crews checked his vital signs and loaded him onto a gurney.

Beecher grew up in the fire department, and got his first set of “bunks,” or gear, as a small boy.

“Nick’s been coming here since he was 6 years old,” said his uncle, fire Lt. Steve Hesby.

The firefighters joke that the small bunks soon will fit the chief’s grandson, Cole, 4, whose father is volunteer firefighter Kevin Swaney, 38, of Everett.

Volunteer firefighter Shaunna Harris, 31, of Shoreline, started hanging out at the station when her father, Mike Harris, began volunteering, she said.

The drills double as father-daughter time.

Shaunna Harris learned to drive on Hat Island, as did her siblings.

“Everybody waves,” she said.

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Fire rigs share the road with golf carts and lawn mowers.

“That’s perfectly legal transportation around here,” Murphy said.

After their drill, the crews chatted over a multi-course lunch prepared by a fire department support team called the “Fire Bunnies.” Most of the “bunnies” have been involved for years, including fire commissioner Sharon Morris. They named themselves after the rabbits that run wild on the island.

As usual, retired fire chief Ron Richard and former firefighter and commissioner Clarence Forseth, 84, came to hang out on drill day and visit.

Forseth bought property on the island more than 40 years ago. He was one of the first firefighters after the department was formed in 1978.

“I don’t know. It just seemed natural,” he said. “I was used to everybody helping each other, and right here, everyone needs each other. It just seemed to fit.”

Outside the station after lunch, a few of the firefighters boasted about who spots the best wildlife on the island and who finds the best views. Even the sheds here have views.

They also counted the bald eagles that screamed at each other overhead, fighting for perches.

Stories here are interwoven. Generations of families work and live together. Children share mischief — when they can find it. “We all have each other’s backs and borrow each other’s tools,” said Kristina Blair, a volunteer firefighter who also serves on the Sultan City Council.

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By the time the drill was over on Saturday, the sun already was thinking about setting.

Within minutes, hours had passed.

“It’s island time,” Shaunna Harris said.

The firefighters who live on the mainland headed back to the ferry, gear slung over their shoulders. For them and others, leaving the island meant as many hugs and kisses as arriving. 

Waiting for the ferry to depart, the crews again got to chatting. They swapped tales of emergency calls, family gossip and recent trips.

Children and dogs splashed in the marina, the water too cold for discerning adults. Lawn chairs lined the docks. More than a few of their occupants sipped from cold cans of beer.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com