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Carsonville fire chief retiring after 40 years answering the call

Carsonville Fire Chief Roger Wilson stands next to the engine at station one in Ponsford. Wilson is retiring from the volunteer department after 40 years, 37 as chief. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)

Roger Wilson didn't start the Carsonville Fire Department on his own but he is the last of about a dozen guys remaining on the active roster who brought fire protection to the township in 1977.

The last of the holdouts is turning in his pager Feb. 1 and retiring as chief, a position he's held for 37 of his 40 years.

"I always say you don't have to be crazy, but it helps," Wilson said when asked what kept him on for 40 years. "My wife says I must have water in my veins. I've just always enjoyed it."

Wilson started his firefighting career in 1974 in Houston, Texas and moved to Ponsford in 1975. Carsonville Township wanted a fire department and Wilson credits Carlton Ritts for leading the push to get things going in 1975-76.

Ritts organized a meeting in 1977 to start a fire department. Wilson had some experience from his days in Texas.

"And that's where I got elected chief. I certainly didn't know anything about being a chief or running a fire department. They figured I knew more than the rest of them, so that's how I got elected. I was looking back through some of the old township minutes and in there it said: 'Roger Wilson will organize a fire department.'"

And the rest is history.

Wilson remembers going to a class many years ago and what an instructor said then. "We're doing something not everyone can do and that's what sort of helps drive us, too. It's just something I've always enjoyed. My dad was a volunteer firefighter so it's been a part of my life forever."

The department started with one station in Ponsford. They had a truck, an old military truck acquired through the DNR, and kept it at the county shop.

"We just started, I think 12-15 guys signed up and said, 'Yep, we'll do it' and we started doing training, got a lot of hand me down protective clothing."

The notification and radio system has certainly improved over Wilson's four decades as a volunteer firefighter and chief. The department started with a simple phone tree, where if a fire occurred someone got a call and that person called the next guy.

"If somebody had a fire, they had to know someone on the fire department at that time."

A few years later, the department upgraded to a phone system to a fire phone, capable of ringing into 18 different houses at one time. It was a steady ring until picked it up and they used that for about 10 years — until late '80s — when the department implemented a paging system from the fire hall. When fire phone would ring, the first person who got to the hall sent out a page.

John and Betty Pachel owned the hardware store called John's Hardware across the road from the hall.

The countywide 9-1-1 system was in place by the early '90s.

Now when a page goes out, it also shows up on cell phones, a benefit Wilson says because it shows which firefighters are responding versus when they started he didn't know how many would be there.

"In 1977, we didn't even have a two-way radio. When we left on a call, nobody knew what was going on until we got back," Wilson recalls. "We've evolved and now we're on the statewide system. The radio communication has changed considerably."

Second station

Among the most notable milestones for Wilson is adding a second station, located in Osage in 2010.

"Osage Township came to us and asked if we were interested in doing something like that," Wilson said. "It worked out good for us in that it gave us a lot bigger area to draw people from. Getting volunteers has always been tough so it brought us in a lot of people. It's been good for us."

Osage Township paid for startup and fire department took over operation.

"I would have never dreamed back in '77 that we'd have two stations and be where we're at today."

Another milestone for the department and the district it serves happened in 1986 when they started responding to medical calls.

"That was a big change for us," Wilson said. "In 1977, we ran three fire calls total. This past year, 2016, we had a total of 198 fires and medicals, and that was a record. The previous record was 197 in 2003 and we topped it by one two hours before midnight."

Carsonville purchased a pumper (engine) from Edina in 1978. It was a 1947 truck but had been repowered from gas to diesel. They purchased that rig for $4,000 and ran it for 10 years. In 2005, they purchased a new truck for $250,000 with a federal grant and $25,000 locally out of budget and donations. The department bought a new tender (tanker truck) for the Osage station at a cost of $185,000.

Carsonville currently operates two stations, one department, with an assistant chief at each station.

Along with advancements in the notification and radio system, Wilson says personal protective gear has come a long way since the days of long coats, rubber boots and old helmets that were basically just a different shape of hard hat. They didn't have hoods and the old helmets left their faces totally exposed. Another vital improvement came with breathing apparatus.

"When I started the old-timers looked at you funny if you put an air pack on," he said. "Now we don't have anybody that even thinks about going near a fire without breathing air on."

Wilson took a break from being chief in 1997-2000 to serve on the Park Rapids Area School Board from 1997-2000.

He doesn't forget to thank his wife, Barb, who he says has been very supportive over the years. Time away from family is the main thing, with calls coming at all hours of the day, weekends, holidays, not to mention training, meetings and other duties of the chief.

Some of the toughest times come when firefighters respond to tragic car accidents and other fatalities. Roger says Barb understands when he has bad calls.

She also answers a lot of phone calls at home since it's that number that is listed as the non-emergency number.

Wilson says he's been thinking about retiring for a few years now, but it took Barb's blessing to commit to retirement.

"When we first talked about it three or four years ago, she told me I wasn't ready," he said. "She said okay now, so I guess I am ready."

Committed to the community

Wilson said they've always got a lot of support from the community.

The department does a spring open house where they get a lot of people sending a little extra money through donations.

"When we have our Father's Day picnic, we have over 400 people here. We roast hogs and all kinds of pie. We get good support from that, and when you're just out and about in the community people will mention it and just thank us for what we do. I think overall we get good support. It's like anything else there's a few people out there that might grumble once in awhile."

Roger and Barb have been married 43 years and Roger feels it's time to retire as chief.

"I just kind of got to a point where it was just time," he said. "When the pager goes off, there's a certain amount of stress level there. There's a responsibility. When the pager goes off, the first thing you're worried about is 'Do I have enough people to handle this?' For a lot of the members between calls they sort of forget about it for a while. As chief, you don't get to do that. There's always mail and meetings and reports. You gotta make sure everything is getting done, equipment up to date and functional."

Calls that stand out

Green Valley is biggest fire of my career," he said of the fire that started in the Wolf Lake area. Carsonville was the third department to get to the fire, which burned 7,500 acres. He said it was the most memorable because of the magnitude and number of departments involved.

"We were able to have 50 departments and law enforcement, and everything that went on there nobody got hurt, and we didn't have any trucks banged up. We were able to save a house just north of Blueberry Pines and I look at that now and think we were able to save that. That's a good feeling."

They've had some good saves over the years that are certainly memorable, but so are the car accidents and fatalities.

"I've been to two car accidents in my career that each one had four fatalities. Probably the tougher moments are working on the little kids. You have those things and you're worrying about the rest of the guys and wondering if they're okay. And that takes it's toll."

A few years ago they responded to a fatality on Christmas Eve. It was a tough extrication and the guy didn't make it. Family was from Park Rapids and has kept in touch with us, and Wilson said that's nice to see.

Appreciation comes at unexpected times.

"We had a lady we rescued out of the Smoky Hills from a 4-wheeler accident. A couple years later I was at the Father's Day picnic and a young kid comes up to me and says, 'thanks for saving my mom.' That was kind of neat," Wilson said. "I don't know that we actually saved her life but we did get her out and flew her out in a helicopter."

Another thing that's changed over the years for rural departments is the use of medical helicopters.

"We've been able to help a lot of people over the years with snowmobile accidents, car accidents, and even the medicals sometimes just getting there and being able to start treatment on them before the ambulance gets there.

While most volunteers first get on the department to fight fires, Wilson tells his guys they do the most good with medical calls.

Through it all, Wilson is proud to serve the communities they provide medical and fire protection coverage.

"It's been great, the community has giving me a lot of support. There's been bumps in the road, don't get me wrong, but overall it's been good."

He figures he's worked with about 100 members in the 40 years.

"A lot of good people to work with. They've all worked hard and are dedicated people. As new people came in it was easier for them to learn from those that had been here for a while. Early on, it was a big learning curve for all of us to put it together and make it work. I feel good about the people that will carry on from here. There's a good group of people here and they'll do just fine."

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