Darrington Fire Capt. Drew Bono walks in front of engine 38 as Whitehorse Mountain glows faintly in the evening light on Tuesday, Dec. 12. Darrington is one of Snohomish County’s few towns that rely on a true volunteer fire department. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Darrington Fire Capt. Drew Bono walks in front of engine 38 as Whitehorse Mountain glows faintly in the evening light on Tuesday, Dec. 12. Darrington is one of Snohomish County’s few towns that rely on a true volunteer fire department. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

At any hour, Darrington’s citizen firefighters rush to help

The town is home to one of Snohomish County’s few remaining volunteer departments.

DARRINGTON — Christmas music echoed down icy streets.

The tight-knit mountain town of Darrington smelled of wood smoke, as families gathered in their homes, out of the cold.

Curious children peeled back curtains and looked outside as the music grew louder. A convoy of fire and police rigs strung with red and green lights slowly rolled down the road.

Kids ran to their front doors and were greeted by volunteer firefighters dressed as elves. Some youngsters threw coats over their pajamas and stood outside as the parade passed.

The grass was frozen stiff. Its blades crunched under their steps.

For one night in December, volunteer firefighters and medics in town had a different job.

They flagged down passing cars, handing drivers candy canes and wishing them a happy holiday season. Angela Botamanenko, 48, spotted a parked truck belonging to her doctor. She left a candy cane under the windshield wipers.

Darrington is home to one of Snohomish County’s few remaining volunteer fire departments.

More than 600 times a year, two dozen people stop what they’re doing to help their neighbors during emergencies. Firefighters and medics in Darrington — a community of about 1,400 — have responded to roughly 70 more calls this year compared to last.

“Life is not getting easier for people to do this job,” Fire Capt. Drew Bono said.

They have families, jobs and responsibilities. On staff, there is a classical cellist, a college student, parents and a pastor.

They carry pagers everywhere. Larry Schoder, 46, sleeps with one next to his pillow.

Volunteers have clocked how fast they can get to the fire station after receiving a call. It takes most people from five to eight minutes, even in the middle of the night. The district on average fields one or two calls a day. At one point in December, firefighters responded to 15 incidents within one weekend.

They attend weekly trainings to practice rescuing people from vehicles, driving cumbersome fire engines and extinguishing chimney fires. They prepare for emergencies that larger cities might never see. Horseback riding accidents, hiking injuries and river rescues happen nearly every summer.

They share memories of the 2014 mudslide west of town that killed 43 people. They took care of their own during the disaster, and that, too, became a part of who they are.

The cellist

Botamanenko realizes who needs help as soon as an address pops up on her pager.

“By now, they know Angela. I’m the only Russian girl here,” she said. “I will go to homes where they know you. They ask how your family is.”

She left a beach town in Ukraine 27 years ago where she grew up surfing and water skiing in the Black Sea. She and her fiance came to the United States and got married. They found jobs playing cello together in the Seattle Symphony.

“I didn’t speak any English, but I could read music,” she said.

When she was about 4, a teacher suggested Botamanenko try the cello. She ultimately went on to perform with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra.

The couple eventually moved to Darrington with their two children and pursued careers in the medical field. Botamanenko now works as a lab technician at the Everett Clinic in Marysville.

She didn’t give up on music. She still performs in church.

For the past 11 years, she has split her time between lab work and volunteering as an emergency medical technician. She is one of a dozen women in the department. They make up half of the staff.

Botamanenko said she joined the fire service to help people. That also is why she sweeps and packages food at the Oso Community Food Bank.

The mechanic

Larry and Kris Schoder laugh about the anniversary they spent extinguishing flames.

The couple met through a dating website. The first time Larry Schoder texted her, she was at a training for firefighters.

“And that was it,” Bono added.

Larry Schoder laughed because it was true. They have been married for four years. Darrington’s assistant fire chief officiated the ceremony.

The couple spent part of their third wedding anniversary at a house fire. They leaped out of bed around midnight and didn’t return until 6 a.m. He drives the ambulance and pulls the levers that operate the water pumps in the fire engine. She is an EMT. After a nap, they shared a dinner.

“We both love what we do,” Larry Schoder said. “I love helping people, no matter what time of the day it is.”

Larry Schoder has worked at the same gas station for nearly 27 years. The store clerk job pays the bills. He wakes at 4:30 a.m. for work, and spends his free time at the fire station.

Larry Schoder is known by fellow firefighters as the mechanic.

He has been working on rigs ever since he could see over a fender, he said. He learned the basics from his dad.

Now, Larry Schoder fixes the department’s equipment. He has installed lights on to a new utility vehicle and attached speakers to the fire engine for the Christmas parade.

The job isn’t always as easy as correcting a mechanical failure.

He once had to tell a mother that her daughter took her own life. He pays attention to the good things, even when they are small. He finds success in rescuing an unharmed person from a wrecked car.

“It’s always good to arrive on a call and it’s not as bad as they say,” he said.

Larry Schoder looks forward to events such as the Christmas parade. His favorite is the annual fishing derby. Community shindigs are big for the fire department, especially in a small town, Bono said. Larry Schoder waits to see kids proudly hold up the fish they caught themselves.

The future

Darrington Fire has always been staffed by volunteers. Chief Dennis Fenstermaker hopes it stays that way for awhile longer.

There’s something comforting about knowing the person who will arrive when you need help, Bono said.

Not many volunteer fire departments handle medical calls, and instead, opt to contract with emergency medical providers, Fenstermaker said. The majority of Darrington’s staff are EMTs.

No matter where people live, they rely on firefighters and medics.

“All the things the big guys do, the little guys have to do, too,” Fenstermaker said. “It takes a special kind of person to make that work.”

On that cold night in December, Darrington firefighters winded through the frozen roads. The slow chime of “Silver Bells” resounded through town.

One firefighter stopped to greet his family, who was standing on the sidewalk. He kissed his baby girl. Then he ran to catch up with the parade.

Caitlin Tompkins: 425-339-3192; ctompkins@heraldnet.com.

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