Putting out fires in Mar­ga­ree Cen­tre

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc; his col­umn ap­pears on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Satur­days in TC Media’s daily pa­pers.

You fol­low a nar­row thread of road through a canyon of bright green trees, and up above that, an even higher canyon of Cape Bre­ton high­lands. It is beau­ti­ful, drawn so large it makes you feel small.

I found Mar­ga­ree Forks first. But I also found North East Mar­ga­ree, Mar­ga­ree Val­ley, the Mar­ga­ree airstrip, Mar­ga­ree Har­bour, the Mar­ga­ree fish hatch­ery and East Mar­ga­ree.

They all bend around dif­fer­ent parts of the Mar­ga­ree River, a wide course of clear wa­ter cut­ting through drifts of round pink stone and across flat river meadow, low- ly­ing flat­lands of grass with oc­ca­sional peaks of lupin blos­soms.

Fi­nally, I found Mar­ga­ree Cen­tre, the one I needed to find most of all, the site of the North East Mar­ga­ree Fire Depart­ment Fun Days.

Mar­ga­ree Cen­tre is small: a com­bi­na­tion gas sta­tion/con­ve­nience store/post of­fice (the garage founded in 1951), a com­mu­nity cen­tre, and a two-bay fire­hall (the depart­ment founded in 1954) mak­ing up the whole of the core of the town. Houses vary in size, but they’re strung out, rarely on top of one another. Ru­ral Nova Sco­tia to a tee.

The Fun Days an an­nual, all-week­end thing. Fri­day night, it was sup­posed to be a fam­ily dance.

Satur­day, it’s an 8: 30 a. m. road race up a nearby moun­tain, a fire truck pa­rade, kids’ ac­tiv­i­ties at the fire hall, an adult dance in the evening, and then Sun­day’s duck race and base­ball tour­na­ment.

It’s a big com­mit­ment for a 20-mem­ber fire depart­ment — but it’s im­por­tant, just like fundrais­ers are to vol­un­teer fire de­part­ments across the At­lantic re­gion.

There’s a fire levy on home­own­ers to raise op­er­at­ing costs, but the chief of the depart­ment, Sean Burchell, says that only goes so far: “That’s where we get in a prob­lem, be­cause peo­ple don’t re­al­ize what it costs. It’s a hard go with vol­un­teer de­part­ments, as far as money-wise.”

His depart­ment al­ready has ge­o­graphic chal­lenges: there are two main bridges that con­nect parts of the fire dis­trict: one is closed, be­ing re­placed, while the other has a tem­po­rary sur­face the heavy pumpers can’t cross, so it’s an 18-kilo­me­tre dog­leg on rough roads. Houses are spread out over miles and miles of ru­ral roads, some of them gravel, oth­ers paved but roughly patched. And, while the coun­try is beau­ti­ful, I can’t help but think what it must be like in win­ter, the snow cours­ing down; clearly, these are peo­ple who like their space, but the idea of a bliz­zard here seems par­tic­u­larly iso­lat­ing.

Like other de­part­ments, the Mar­ga­ree depart­ment has the costs of ev­ery­thing from fuel to train­ing to equip­ment. Burchell’s depart­ment is small, but it still has ex­tri­ca­tion equip­ment to cut peo­ple out of cars, along with a sys­tem for re­fill­ing breath­ing air tanks.

And three trucks. One is al­most new, a pickup con­verted with a wa­ter tank and por­ta­ble pumps. The other two, full­sized pumpers, date back to 1977. (They don’t have a ton of mileage on the odome­ter, but still, it’s like a 55- year- old nurs­ing along the car he had as a teenager.)

The Fun Days are a much­needed fi­nan­cial lift. Fire­fight­ers also staff the bar dur­ing com­mu­nity dances, another way to raise much-needed cash. It takes a lot of com­mit­ment — and it’s hard to find peo­ple to do it.

To­day’s vol­un­teer fire­fighter has first aid and CPR train­ing, as well as ba­sic fire­fight­ing train­ing, ex­tri­ca­tion train­ing, breath­ing gear train­ing and the list goes on. So do the costs. So, on top of ev­ery­thing else, there’s the time com­mit­ted for fundrais­ing.

Fri­day af­ter­noon in Mar­ga­ree Cen­tre, a man opens a plas­tic bag and shows me three fine trout he’s caught, cleaned now but still bril­liantly coloured. Other peo­ple are leisurely cut­ting grass, gar­den­ing. At a fire­fighter’s house, the ducks were be­ing counted and their num­bers checked. The depart­ment has been run­ning the duck race for over 20 years.

How many peo­ple are go­ing to show up for Fun Days? Burchell’s never counted and won’t haz­ard a guess. “I know we sell a pile of hot­dogs.”

That morn­ing, Burchell and another fire­fighter had trun­dled their front-line 1977 GMC pumper to fill a new above­ground pool for a res­i­dent. Now, Burchell’s fill­ing cool­ers with pop for the fam­ily dance: “And I have stuff to do at home, too. Maybe next week­end.”

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