It was bitterly cold and approaching midnight on a windswept street in Sabattus.

In front of a house that was shooting flames, a firefighter struggled to adjust a ladder with one hand while holding a whirring chain saw with the other.

From my warm car parked in the Uncle Moe’s Diner lot, I watched the firefighter climb that ice-slicked ladder and step out onto a roof that had been burning for nearly four hours. He stepped onto the very edge of the blackened roof, tested his footing, and then leaned in with the growling chain saw before him.

From my warm and safe perspective across the street, what happened next was madness. The firefighter leaned toward the side of a dormer, feet slipping momentarily on the icy roof edge, and began to cut into the wall with the chain saw, releasing a fury of fire that pounced on him like the breath of a dragon.

The firefighter did not react to this, he just kept hacking into that wall. A few minutes later, flames were licking at his masked face and pooling around his feet. Still, he kept cutting away, exposing more and more fire so that another firefighter could climb that ice-slicked ladder with a hose and direct water at the fire.

In awe, I watched this scene that was only one of many taking place in, around and above the burning house at 40 Sabattus Road. Here were teams of firefighters doing things that most of us would not do on our bravest days and they were doing it for pretty much nothing by way of compensation.

When those flames chased a family of eight from its home last Thursday night, the firefighters who responded were almost 100 percent volunteers from more than half a dozen towns. These are people who already had worked long days at their regular jobs and were expected to be back at work in the morning.

“The thing that amazes me,” said Dan Roy Jr., a career firefighter who started as a volunteer in Sabattus at age 17, “is that nobody ever complains.”

The firefighters did not complain that it was minus 2, with a wind making it feel colder. They did not complain that the hydrants were freezing, their air packs were freezing and their hoses were so iced over some had to be cut from the trucks with extrication tools.

One firefighter helped battle the blaze until 2:45 a.m. At 3:30 a.m., he had to go off to his regular job and drive a truck for the rest of the day.

“One of our firefighters had time for a quick shower before heading to work for the day,” Monmouth Fire Department photographer Michelle Handley wrote in an account of the fire.

“Most would be lucky to grab a quick couple hours shut-eye before the new day rolled,” Handley wrote. “No one complained. And all would do it again in a heartbeat if called, hesitation be damned, because the fire service family unites in links that are strong. Always.”

Here are some facts you might not know: In the United States, about 70 percent of all firefighters are volunteers. Among those volunteers, some are not paid at all. Others make a minimum wage per call — although when you factor in the training sessions, meetings and community events for which they DO NOT get paid, it comes out to something more like four bucks an hour.

I thought of that as I watched another firefighter stomp through the snow, hauling a hose with all of his might so he could climb a slick ladder, step onto a fire-weakened roof and get at ferocious flames from which just about anybody else would run.

All that backbreaking labor. All of that risk of great bodily harm or death. It is not money that motivates these volunteers, certainly. It is not glory, either, because by and large, even the most heroic of firefighters remains completely faceless. Nameless, even.

“It’s in your blood,” said Roy, chief of the Monmouth Fire Department. “You do it to give back to the community. Somebody’s got to answer those calls — you don’t want to wait for mutual aid from a full-time department that might be two or three towns away.”

The family whose home burned in Sabattus that night sat in cars across the street even as flames devoured most of what they owned. A young mother consoled her children. A man sat with his head in his hands, perhaps thinking about all that was lost.

An hour or so after the fire had begun, a firefighter stepped out of that haze of smoke carrying a small animal cage in his gloved hands. It was a household pet — a ferret or a bird — and just one of several the crews would pull alive out of the burning house and offer as comfort to the grieving family.

The firefighters — frozen, tired and hampered by all sorts of cold-related mayhem — continued to work for hours in service of people most of them would never meet personally. When it was over and the fire was out, they did not emerge to celebrations or adoration, but to business as usual — just a frozen start to another workday.

It is brutally hard work and largely thankless, but thank God somebody is willing to take it on, no matter his or her reasons.

“The love of firefighting and being there to help the community was my main drive,” said Lewiston fire investigator Paul Ouellette, who worked as a volunteer for 13 years in Danville, which is part of Auburn, for zero pay.

“Your heart really has to be in it,” he said. “The brotherhood is like no other. It’s like having another family. It takes a lot of dedication and time, a lot of time away from your family and social life to do what we do, but I don’t regret a minute of it.”

“It’s about the desire to serve,” said Eddie Greyfox Burgess of Lewiston, who volunteers for Buckfield. “It’s about the brotherhood.”

Sabattus Fire Chief Marc Veilleux got hooked on the profession while hosing off a roof to keep it from catching fire as the Worumbo Mill in Lisbon burned in 1987. He said volunteers join for a variety of reasons. Only 30 to 40 percent of them stay with it, though, in large part because of the rigorous demands of training, meetings and annual requirements.

“If you ask the majority of the members — as we do during their initial interview — they will tell you that they want to give back to their community, or help their fellow man,” Veilleux said. “It certainly takes a special person not to just join the department but to stay involved.”

The volunteers train not just to battle fire but to tackle anything else that might be demanded of them: using extrication tools to cut victims out of cars at crash sites. Performing CPR and other life-sustaining techniques. Bailing out leaky basements and investigating weird odors. You name it, the volunteers have probably been asked to do it.

“It isn’t about the money. Never has been,” said Adam Jones, a volunteer firefighter in Lisbon. “But at the end of the day, it’s about protecting and helping family — whether it’s yours or someone else’s.

“When the tone goes off, you aren’t thinking about anything else except someone is in need and you can help them, no matter what the cost.”

When I drove away from the fire scene in Sabattus sometime after midnight, the firefighter with the chain saw was still attacking that wall, a warrior who could barely be seen through the haze of smoke. All around were other warriors, battling an ancient enemy in the punishing cold.

These are the kinds of heroes you hope you will never need. But man, it’s good to know they’re out there, just in case.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. 

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