Ray Olsen has had it with the pictures.
He’s been leaning against the front bumper of a 1966 American LaFrance fire truck, posing for photos as best he can, but there’s a limit, and Ray, a man for whom vanity is not a strong point, has reached it.
“That’s it,” he says as Deseret News photographer Ben Braun pauses to check the latest digital images on his camera.
“I’m sorry,” Ray quickly adds, relieved when he sees that Ben, as requested, is packing up his camera gear and he can be confident his torment is over. “I’m not a picture man.”
What he is is a fire chief, and if the media wants to help him get the word out that the fire truck he’s leaning against is going up for auction, he’s all for it.
In his line of work — namely volunteer firefighting — it’s called just part of the job.
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Statistics from the National Fire Protection Association show that more than 75% of America is served by volunteer fire departments such as the one in Mendon, a town 8 miles west of Logan that started out as a farming community and a century and a half later doesn’t claim a single farm of any consequence. Most of Mendon’s 1,375 residents work in Logan or Brigham City or maybe Ogden and Salt Lake, figuring that wide open spaces, country quiet and a night sky full of stars are worth the drive.
The Mendon Fire Department is an ode to what’s right about America — an all-volunteer outfit fueled by people seeing a need and filling it.
The town contributes a small annual budget for gear and equipment and enough compensation for the firefighters to pay for their gas to get back and forth from their houses to the station, if that, but the truth is, if it weren’t for people willing to put out fires for reasons other than money, there would be no Mendon Fire Department.
Take Ray, for example. He’s been volunteering for 47 years, 44 of them as chief, all on a one-day-at-a-time contract. He could leave tomorrow, he could’ve left yesterday, and no one would tell him he couldn’t.
Why does he stay? His answer is straight out of a Frank Capra script: “I’m proud of the fact that we’ve got a really good crew,” says Ray, “and I get to work alongside them — people who want to put themselves out there and help other people for no other reason than that. There’s not enough of those people left in the world.”
Ray’s crew consists of 22 volunteers, three of them women, all of them trained and certified at weekly Thursday night sessions.
Mendon can be proud of such a crack unit, but it hasn’t always been this way — which gives us a chance to tell the story of how Ray became a volunteer firefighter in the first place.
The year was 1975 and he and his wife had just moved to Mendon to build a house on his wife’s family property. To help clear the land, Ray set fire to some weeds and, as he remembers it, “the wind came up and it kinda got away from me.”
He called the fire department and the alarm went out, which 47 years ago consisted of someone pushing a button to make an aerial siren go off that could be heard all over the valley.
Enough help showed up that the fire was put out before Mendon burned down.
The next day at church, the volunteer fire chief, a man named L.R. Earl, stood up and strode to the pulpit to make an announcement.
“You know, we had a fire yesterday and we didn’t have near enough volunteers come and help and we could use some more people to step up,” he said. Then he sat back down.
You can guess where this is going.
“I’m sitting there feeling pretty darn guilty about this whole thing because I’m the one who started the fire,” says Ray. “So I said, ‘well I guess if I’m going to start ’em I better learn how to put ’em out.’”
Within three years after joining the department, Earl stepped down and Ray, a general contractor by trade, became chief.
He’s seen the department grow and expand for the past 44 years, constantly wrestling with too little money and too many needs. The annual 24th of July bake sales and government grants help, but Ray, 70, is always noodling about new ways to raise money.
That’s why he’s partnered with Municibid, a national online auction house, to see how much Mendon can get for the 1966 American LaFrance fire truck that was once the station’s pride and joy and is no longer needed because Cache County is housing two top-notch fire trucks in the Mendon fire station, available at Mendon’s beck and call.
Whatever money they get out of the truck, they’ll invest in new self-contained breathing apparatuses, since theirs are about to expire. To view the truck and details, go to municibid.com. The listing number is 38767814. The auction runs until Sept. 3.
The truck only has 11,000 miles on it. “It drives good, runs good, handles good, has a pump capacity of 750 gallons per minute,” says Ray in a sales pitch as understated as it is sincere.
All part of the job for a volunteer firefighter.
“I’m the HR department, the accounting department, if I need something typed up I type it,” smiles Ray.
And also, don’t forget, the PR department. As evidenced by his unapologetic schmoozing of the media to help sell his truck … well, except for the photo shoot. Ray is not a picture man.