By Kelly Terpstra, firstname.lastname@example.org
A tiny spark that soon becomes a raging blaze or a fanned flame that quickly gets out of control — any unplanned fire is cause for concern.
It’s Eric Whipple and his department’s job to make those hot spots go away.
Whipple, Charles City’s fire chief since 2012, looked back on 2018 — a calendar year that saw a relatively low number of working fire calls.
“Some years we have a lot of fire calls, where it just seems like it’s every week,” said Whipple, who leads a department of four full-time firefighters, including himself, and a volunteer contingent of 29.
The calls that came in last year included structure and vehicle fires, as well as illegal burns. Fire-related calls can be something as simple as a carbon monoxide detector or smoke alarm malfunctioning. Firefighters also help as storm spotters when severe weather threatens.
Whipple said there were 684 calls for service for the Fire Department in 2018 — a little more than 13 per week on average. Of those, 479 were emergency medical services (EMS) calls. That left 205 fire-related calls, with 21 of those working fire calls.
“We estimated almost $270,000 in losses because of fire. That’s just our estimates,” said Whipple.
The 2018 numbers were down a little from 2017, when there were 27 structure or working fire calls.
Whipple said it’s tough to pinpoint why some years have more fires than others.
“It’s tough to tell. It could have something to do with education. But I think it’s just the way the ball bounces from year to year,” he said.
One of the most intense fires in recent years occurred in October 2017 when strong winds whipped a fire at a Zoetis egg-laying facility into a blaze that quickly overcame the building and caused $3 million in damage. Faulty electrical wiring was later blamed for the inferno.
Whipple said weather can play a part in the number of structure fires that his department has to handle and put out.
“Generally speaking, colder weather does cause more fires. The mild weather kind of helps a little bit as far as alternative heating sources not being used as much,” he said.
“We find that a lot of our fires consist of cooking fires,” Whipple said. “A lot of people will put something on the stove and either go fall asleep, forget about it and go walk out of the room. I’d say probably half of our fire calls have been related to cooking fires.”
As much as the CCFD is concerned about protecting the community, the staff is equally aware of the importance of education in preventing fires, especially among the youth.
“Awareness, safety and education rank right up there with actually fighting fires,” Whipple added. “We would much rather prevent a fire with education than to fight a fire by a long stretch.”
The CCFD’s fire safety house is a key tool for young and old alike to learn about the dangers of fire. The fire safety house came about through a partnership with the Iowa Firefighters Association and the Iowa Elks Association.
The learning tool is housed in Charles City and can be used elsewhere around the area upon request. Students and teachers have been able to tour the fire safety house with their respective schools, and last year, Whipple said, 1,264 people walked through the house — some making the trip from as far as 100 miles away.
It was also another great year for fundraising for the CCFD as the annual pancake breakfast wrapped up Fire Prevention Week in October. There was also a successful “Fill a Boot” campaign that raised more than $3,400 for MDA (the Muscular Dystrophy Association) in November.
“We’re so involved in the community, maybe in ways that some people don’t understand,” said Whipple.
Of the CCFD’s 29 volunteer firefighters, five of them are currently going through a four- to five-month firefighter course that is required by the department. He said they will finish that course in April or May.
Whipple encouraged anyone who might want to become a volunteer firefighter to apply.
“Feel free to stop by the fire station and fill out an interest form,” he said.
The CCFD’s full-time staff consists of Whipple, Assistant Fire Chief Marty Parcher, firefighter Curt Teeter and investigator Darien Uetz.
To contact the Charles City Fire Department for a non-emergency, call 641-257-6313.