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West Rabun Fire Department History -
by Tom Madison
For over 40 years, the three volunteer fire departments, Tallulah Persimmon, Wildcat and Lakes, have provided fire protection for all the Lake Burton property owners as well as nearby neighborhoods. During those years, as more homes have been constructed, the number of calls has steadily increased. Today, volunteers to these three stations respond to an average of 300 call outs per year for structure fires, vehicle accidents, medical emergencies, brush fires, and a myriad of other calamities where they are needed. Often these urgent situations occur late at night, during bad weather, and require the volunteers to leave their families and homes to respond to the needs of others. Most of the volunteers have full time jobs but are willing to do this as a result of deep-rooted values such as loyalty to their community and service for neighbors that have been instilled in them by their ancestors for generations. These three Rabun County fire departments were founded during 1976. At a time when most of the United States was preoccupied with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a few bold citizens of the county took the initial steps to create the fledging fire stations.
In the Beginning
In September 1973, Fred Stewart started a security services business and decided to include fire protection as well, since none existed for the nascent Lake Burton community. (This initial security business is today “Mountain Patrol”, owned and managed by Fred Stewart’s stepdaughter, Michelle Varner.) He purchased a used 1948 Chevy pumper truck for use to fight fires. The “old pumper" is still parked by the Mountain Patrol office on Burton Dam Road. In 1977-1978, Fred Stewart and Jack Horsley worked together to establish the first station named the “Lakes Fire and Rescue Station”. For the next 20 years, this station served the needs of Rabun County citizens throughout the growing West Rabun community. The original building for Station 11 was constructed by Howard Thompson. It was a two truck bay structure with gas and electric power but had no water. In early 1998, what is today the Lakes Fire Department (Station #10) and the Wildcat Fire Department (Station #11) were a single fire department. Later in 1998, as a result of increasing demands on the budding department, a second station was added named the Wildcat Fire Station (Station #11). Verner Kastner and family donated land for this new station. The funds required for the construction of the building were provided solely from donations received from citizens in the area. The first chief (captain) for the new Wildcat Fire Station was Jim Zobel and the first chief (captain) for the Lakes Fire Station was Barry Woods. The current captain for the Lakes Station, Matt Wood, succeeded Barry. In 2000, the Rabun County government purchased Station 11's first fire apparatus, a new, 1998 pumper truck.
A New Station Is Born
During this same time period, the citizens of the northwestern part of the county launched plans for their own fire department. The idea for a Tallulah Persimmon Fire Department was originated in 1976 in the Clayton Café. Three charter members (George R. Darnell, Jr.; Floyd (Ned) Stockton; and Randall Wilson) met with Coleman Jarrard (then chairman of the Rabun County Board of Commissioners). After learning of the availability of fire apparatus for a rural community with enough interest to form a new fire department, these three charter members informed Mr. Jarrard of their intention to organize the department. The first meeting for the station took place on August 1, 1976, at the “Coon-Hunters Association” Lodge located on Persimmon Road. George R. Darnell, Jr. agreed to make land available for construction of the new station.
The Tallulah Persimmon Station (TPFD) is responsible for the northwest section of Lake Burton properties. This station has the largest geographic area of responsibility of all the Rabun County Fire Departments. Included in the assigned area are multiple campgrounds as well as two private airports. The volunteers at the TPFD station respond annually to over one hundred 911 dispatch calls to structural fires, brush fires, medical emergencies, and motor vehicle accidents (including victim extrication using the "Jaws of Life". (The "Jaws of Life" is a piece of equipment that can cut through metal and is used to get people out of their vehicles after an accident. Firefighters use the "Jaws of Life" to free the trapped victims.) The department also manages landing zone areas for medical helicopter landings.
The Wildcat Station is responsible for the Western portion of Lake Burton properties including Highway 197 extending south to the Habersham County line, and north to Highway 76. The Lakes Station is responsible for the eastern portion of Lake Burton properties extending south to Lake Seed.
In 2010, because of the increasing frequency of vehicle accidents involving entrapment of passengers, the responsibility for rescue equipment such as the “Jaws of Life” was transferred from the single County EMA Search & Rescue Team to the twelve county fire departments. Given the greater number of stations dispersed throughout the county, this has provided for improved response times in critical vehicle emergencies where lives are at stake.
Water, Water . . . and More Water!
Since there is not a pressurized water hydrant system in rural Rabun County, a series of “standing pipes” or “dry hydrants” had to be constructed at various existing water sources such as ponds, rivers, streams and lakes in the County. (Dry hydrants utilize a non-pressurized pipe system and are permanently installed in a rural area, connected to existing lakes, ponds, streams, and cisterns.) During these early years, only a relatively small amount of water could be carried on the “pumper trucks” making the task of fighting structure or wilderness fires both challenging as well as dangerous for the volunteers.
The first fire truck made available for the TPFD station was a used 1000 gallon “fire knocker” that was leased from the Georgia Forestry Commission. The first station 3 building was constructed later in 1976. The original station building was used for the next 43 years until it was replaced recently in 2019. The old station building was small and cramped for the volunteer fire fighters. There were no sleeping quarters and only a very small room for team meetings and training sessions. At one point, the station went without water for over a year because of a problem with the well. The truck bay area for the station could barely accommodate the new larger fire trucks. Parking of the vehicles in the station was difficult given the tight fit and configuration of the building with only one access door.
A Time For Regeneration For All Three Stations
In 2012, the volunteers at Station 3 started a series of fund raising events for eventual replacement of the old station building. For the next 7 years, fund raising activities included BBQ events with live music, raffles, and auctions - all designed to provide the funds needed for construction. The volunteers also were supported significantly by the annual donations received from the Lake Burton Civic Association (LBCA). Whenever possible, donations from whatever source were put aside to help pay for the new station. In 2018, the county finalized the purchase of the land on Persimmon Road needed for the new station, and agreed to fund the construction of the “building shell” for the new station building. All the “finishing” construction including everything from the front doors, plumbing, electrical, interior wall coverings, painting, bathrooms, kitchen equipment, computer equipment, security system, fixtures, furniture, training room equipment, and more had to be paid for by private donations and funds earned by the volunteers.
During those 7 years, the volunteers managed to create a building fund of nearly $250,000 that was used to fund the completion of the new fire station building. Significant enhancements to the new structure included nearly doubling the size of the building, adding separate emergency shelter space, the installation of a concrete helipad for use by medical emergency helicopters, and the installation of rapid action, folding doors for fire truck exits.
Station #10 was started in the late 1970s and was enlarged in 1998. The station also began fund raising for a new station building and Rabun County committed to fund approximately $250,000 for the cost of the new station. The balance was paid for by the station volunteers with the help of a donation of $45,000 from the LBCA. During this same period, the new Wildcat Fire Station was constructed. The Verner Kastner family donated the land for the new station, and the County agreed to buy their first pumper truck. In 1998, Ranny Whitney was elected as Chief for the new station. Early in this position, Chief Ranny became concerned about the lack of clarity from Rabun County officials concerning property and casualty insurance for the new station. He decided to pursue County approval to purchase separate insurance for the station structure, equipment and fire trucks. This proved to be a providential undertaking.
The 2011 Tornado
In the early spring of 2011, a highly unusual tornado ripped across northern Georgia. Lake Burton was in the direct path of the EF4 storm. Wednesday, April 27, 2011, the tornado made a direct hit on the Wildcat Station and destroyed the structure. High winds destroyed about 32 homes, and damaged another 113. Thanks to the benefit of the insurance coverage, the volunteers were able to rebuild the station and replace damaged equipment within about 4 months. The building was completed August 31, 2011, with the help of Sheriff Frank Andrews, who sent three inmates with a deputy to help rebuild the station. It was in full service with trucks and equipment by the end of September. The insurance company paid approximately $700,000 for replacement of the station, vehicles and equipment.
The Role of the LBCA
The Lake Burton Civic Association has played a major role in the evolution of Rabun County’s volunteer fire departments for many years. Rabun County has relied on citizens to donate land for the stations and provide donations needed for purchase of equipment and supplies necessary for the stations to function. The recent replacement of Stations 3 and 10 were funded by a combination of county support as well as major donations by private citizens. The LBCA has also funded the installation of standpipes throughout the county and continues to make annual donations of funds needed to keep the three stations fully functional. Other major contributions have included Sid Kollme’s leadership to successfully raise funds needed for purchase of a fireboat. Charlie Brundage, a resident of Lake Burton for over 40 years, spearheaded a project to improve the regions average ISO insurance rating. (A company called ISO [Insurance Services Office] creates ratings for fire departments and their surrounding communities. In the ISO rating scale, a lower number is better: 1 is the best possible rating, while a 10 means the fire department did not meet the ISO's minimum requirements.) As a result of his efforts, the ratings were lowered from 9 to as low as 5 for many homes. Many insurance companies use the ISO rating as a major factor for underwriting procedures that determine premium amounts. His efforts resulted in reductions of 30-40% in insurance premiums for many residents.
Today, the Rabun County Fire Services covers 361 square miles with 12 volunteer fire stations, 200 volunteer firefighters, 17 fire engines, 11 tankers, 11 mini pumpers, and 3 fireboats. 11 of the 12 fire stations are equipped with extrication tools and all stations have members who are medical responders.
All Rabun County property owners owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the past and present volunteers who sacrifice time, energy, and opportunity in order to be trained and available when needed the most. There is also a significant amount of personal risk that goes with the job. A special note of appreciation should be given to the fire fighters who have been elected by their peers to serve as a station chief. This is a major responsibility and this system of volunteers would not work without their leadership. The current chiefs are Jeff Hooper, TPFD Station; Pat Thompson, Wildcat Station; and Matt Wood, Lakes Station. Each of them has expressed their sincere appreciation for the tremendous amount of support provided by all members of the Lake Burton Civic Association.
About the Author
Tom R. Madison has been a full time resident of Rabun County since 2006 after retiring as Chairman & CEO of Indus International, Inc. The firm provided software and professional services to the nuclear power industry across the globe. He also served as Group President and Corporate Vice President of the Financial Services Group at Computer Sciences Corporation, and as Managing Director for Gemini Consulting, a subsidiary of Cap Gemini Sogeti, Paris, France. For the first 15 years of his professional career, he held various executive positions with the IBM Corporation. After retirement from the information technology sector, he completed certification as a Certified Financial Planner, CFP, and founded the Charlie Mountain Financial Advisors LLC. The firm provided fee only Financial Planning services. After relocating to North Georgia, Tom served for 12 years on the Rabun County Wilderness Search & Rescue Team and for 10 years on the volunteer fire department. He also served as president of the Tallulah River Watershed Council and President of the Charlie Mountain Property Owners Association. He currently serves as a Director for the New Horizons Foundation. The organization is a nonprofit public charity. He also serves as a director for the Lake Burton Civic Association and Foundation. He received a B.S. in mathematics and an M.B.A. from the University of Kentucky. Mr. Madison served six years as an officer in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War era. Deployments included serving as a Navy Test Director for underground nuclear weapons testing for the Trident Submarine system. Mr. Madison is married to Andrea Sykes Madison and has two sons and 3 grandchildren. His home is located on the top of Charlie Mountain in Rabun County.