Emo’s new station chief stresses need for volunteer firefighters

By Daniel Adam
Staff Writer

It was March 2018 when James Klug and his family watched their home burn down.

In less than an hour, they went from sleeping peacefully to watching nearly everything they owned turn to ash.

“That was hard,” says Klug. “In a fire, it’s the things you can’t replace that are such a huge deal.”

Without a home and hardly any familiar items, their lives were turned upside down for quite some time.

“When you lose your house, you lose absolutely everything,” says Klug. “It’s really, really tough.”

But one thing that stuck with him were the volunteers who tried to save their house.

“I remember every person who came out to that fire,” says Klug. “That was an absolutely enormous deal to me to see those guys and girls come in the middle of the night when they had to work the next day, and they all fought that fire.”

Their dedication was the catalyst that brought Klug to the Chapple, Emo, and La Vallee (CEL) Fire & Emergency Services as a volunteer firefighter.

“That night, I decided this is absolutely a need,” he says. “I need to do this.”

During his time on the department, Klug has seen two fire chiefs — Joshua Colling, and now Tyrell Griffith. But he had only known one station chief — Rick Vanderaa.

About a year ago, Vanderaa retired, creating a hole Klug says is unfillable.

“He’s impossible to replace,” says Klug. “Rick is the best firefighter that I’ve ever met.”

Vanderaa had been on the team for over 20 years, serving as Emo’s station chief for most of that time.

With the big loss, Klug and fire chief Griffith began discussions on what to do about department structure.

“We didn’t want to replace someone of Rick’s calibre right away because first of all, we couldn’t,” says Klug. “He has served this district really well.”

After Vanderaa’s departure, Klug agreed to step into the role as an interim, simply so the town and crew had someone taking care of certain functions.

“It’s very big deal that Emo is protected, and Chapple and La Vallee,” says Klug. “And I feel that very passionately.”

Earlier this year, Klug expressed interest in officially taking over, and about a month ago, did.

“As time progressed, it became really evident that [Klug] was the man to take over the role,” says Griffith. “It’s exciting to see him officially stepping into this role … it’s important that we recognize the sacrifice that he does day in and day out for his community.”

With chief Griffith, and Emo captain Ted Bowcock, Klug says he had the support he needed to fill the position.

“[Griffith] has shown a lot of faith in me. He certainly gives far more to the job than what is required by the townships,” says Klug. “And we have a really awesome captain in Ted Bowcock.”

To explain positional hierarchy, the three townships have one full-time employee. That’s CEL fire chief Griffith who oversees all three departments. Each township will also have a station chief and then a captain. Meaning with any Emo call, Griffith is in charge, with Klug as second in command, and Bowcock up next, followed by certified firefighters, and then recruits.

“I’m really thankful for the group we have in Emo. I don’t think I would have taken this on if I didn’t think they were guys and girls that would have my back,” says Klug. “We’re also flanked with two really good fire departments, so that was another reason why I felt like I could take this on. [Chapple and La Vallee] are great supports, they have fantastic responses.”

Though Emo only has nine people on their crew, Klug says he’s been impressed with what they’ve accomplished.

“I’ve been really, really proud of our little tiny department. This year has been a lot of saves. We’ve had a lot more saves than we’ve had losses. And that’s a big deal,” he says. “You don’t even see that in cities where there’s full-time fire departments. They’ll have times 10, 12 trucks show up in like five minutes. Well, we’re three little departments that are 20 minutes away from each other, so it’s pretty impressive what they’ve been able to do with our limited numbers.”

And even when a building does burn down, Klug says there are often small victories that may not always be noticed.

“Sometimes you can’t just look at a burnt building and say it was a fail,” he says. “Sometimes you kept things from blowing up, or having the neighbours catch on fire, or maybe you were able to save just enough stuff that people can have at least a few memories.”

Having lost a home himself, Klug knows that saving just a bit can mean a lot.

“It’s easy to say it’s all just stuff, but it isn’t all just stuff, it’s your life,” he says. “So if me being in this role means that if I can stop that from happening, even for just one person for the rest of my life, to me, it’s totally worth it.”

During his own house fire, Klug was oblivious to Emo’s need for volunteer firefighters. He saw lots of people who were there to help. What he didn’t know was that the response was made up of four different fire departments.

“We go to these scenes and people may think there’s a lot of us, but it’s because it’s a lot of departments and mutual aid that all show up together,” he says.

Chief Griffith says an average of two or three Emo firefighters attend a given call. And though the Chapple and La Vallee departments can and will respond, they may not always be quick enough.

“They could be a 20 or 30 minute delay to actually be on scene. The average house, they say, burns down in 17 minutes now,” says Griffith. “So that’s just too far to rely on that. We need to have that local, Emo-based response.”

And with just nine people on the team, there’s certainly room for growth.

“Because we’re a volunteer group … we would feel a whole lot better protected if we had more than 20 people on the roster,” says Griffith. “Most of our guys don’t live and work in Emo. They do one or the other, and they’re not always available.”

The Emo department has members who are shift workers in Nestor Falls and Rainy River, and one who works as far as Pikangikum First Nation.

“As dedicated as they might be, they’re sometimes very far away and unable to leave work,” says Klug.

Griffith says there’s a huge need for volunteers because of many necessary tasks on scene, as well as having to service equipment afterwards.

Klug says it’s important to note that volunteers may not necessarily need to be interior firefighters. People can help with vehicle extrication, or provide medical assistance.

“Or maybe they just want to run a tanker and drive trucks, or maybe they just want to clean the hall — we need all that stuff,” he says. “So, yes, what we really, ultimately want is dedicated firefighters that are trained in everything, but we’re also wanting to talk to people if there’s things they can do to help out in smaller capacities, because we’re a pretty tapped out little tiny group.”

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter in Emo, Chapple, or La Vallee can contact Griffith at 271-0111 or stop by any of the town offices for an application form.