By Brianne Schwabauer • Photos by Dustin Mielke
Twelve miles southeast of Cordell lies the small community of Cloud Chief, Oklahoma. With no school, no gas station, nor even a post office, many drivers may not even realize they are traveling through “downtown” Cloud Chief. What was once a bustling town more than 100 years ago now only shows the remains of what was once there.
But in 2011, one building popped up along the town’s main street to better serve the community and the 188 citizens that live in the 100-square-mile area – the Cloud Chief Fire Department.
Farmer, cattle rancher and Oklahoma Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers committee member Nocona Cook established the department and currently serves as the fire chief, working alongside 15 other volunteer firefighters, 13 of whom are fellow Oklahoma Farm Bureau members.
“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter since I was a little kid,” Cook said. “I thought it would be neat to do, but I lived here in Cloud Chief and it was too far to Cordell to be on their fire department even though I went to school there.”
But in 2008, everything was put into perspective for Cook.
As he was driving just a few miles from Cloud Chief, Cook saw smoke and flames off in the distance from a grass fire. As he approached the fire, he could see the flames getting closer and closer to a neighbor’s house. With strong winds bearing down on the fire, Cook watched in awe as members of the Gotebo and Cordell Fire Departments worked together to extinguish the blaze.
With the Cordell Fire Department 10 miles away and the Gotebo Fire Department 14 miles away, he knew it had taken them some time to reach the scene of the blaze.
All it takes is funding
With a passion for serving and helping his community, Cook set off to learn how to set up a fire department. Reaching out to fire chiefs in neighboring rural communities and the district rural fire coordinator, he was able to gather more information, learning what he was about to get himself into.
“I kind of jumped in with both feet, just running in blind,” Cook said.
But first, he knew that he would need some more help if his idea was to become reality.
“I think at the first meeting we had 10 guys, roughly,” Cook said. “Basically, all of us are from the area. We’re all farmers born and raised right here in this part of the county, and that was kind of our standing stipulation to be on our fire department.”
As word got out within the community, roughly $1,500 was raised through generous donations from area farmers and ranchers who saw Cook’s vision and understood the need in that first meeting.
Officially established in August 2008, the Cloud Chief Fire Department started off with two donated pieces of equipment, both older than majority of the men on the force. At first, there was no fire station and no gear.
The department’s first major donation was a 1976 Chevrolet ¾-ton pickup, which came from the Bessie Fire Department. Shortly after, the department received a 1977 Chevrolet one-ton pickup donated by the Crawford Fire Department. When neighboring full-time departments would purchase new gear, Cook would contact them, oftentimes being told he could have all the old gear but he couldn’t pick through it.
Without a place to store the department’s gear or engines, Cook’s grandparents’ farm shop became the stand-in fire station for nearly two years. No matter if the family happened to be in the middle of planting or harvest, all farming equipment was kept at the back of the shop to ensure the fire engines could be easily accessed in case of an emergency.
Soon realizing just how much money it was going to take to properly outfit each firefighter and gather the right equipment, the department began hosting an annual calf fry and catfish lunch – strategically held after church services were released.
“We’ve figured out that if you put ‘fire service’ in front of something, it basically triples the price,” Cook said of the equipment the department needs. “You could buy the exact same thing at a hardware store – but it doesn’t say ‘fire service’ on it – for a third of the price. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
Even with the fundraisers, many state and national grants, and donations here and there, Cook realized the money they had raised was not going to cut it if they really wanted to better serve their community. Nearly five years ago, though, things really began to change for the department.
During a meeting with fellow fire chiefs in Washita County, the group made a decision that the best way to help the county as a whole was to propose a special sales tax in the next election. On Oct. 1, 2014, a 5/8-cent sales tax was implemented. The funds generated by the new tax were evenly distributed among the 11 departments in the county, with each receiving no more than $36,000 in a year.
“The newer trucks we have – the engine and the brush pumper – the majority of it was bought with sales tax money,” Cook said. “We’d buy the truck with sales tax money and then use some money from the fundraiser to put some equipment on it. That way we could make the most with our money.”
When the sales tax initially passed, Washita County was benefitting from strong oil and gas activity in the area. More recently, however, that has changed. The downturn in the energy sector means fewer crews are in the area. With fewer people spending money in rural communities and contributing to local sales tax, the funds allocated for the 11 fire departments had to be cut in the most recent election or property taxes would have needed to increase.
The fire departments agreed to do what was best for their community and supported a vote that prevented an increase in property taxes while figuring out how to run their departments using $1,500 in tax revenues compared to the $3,000 they had been receiving.
One grant the department has come to rely on is funded by the Oklahoma Forestry Service. Every year, rural fire departments with a population below 10,000 people receive an operational grant varying anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 to help offset expenses. If a department was to receive a $5,000 forestry grant, it would only amount to an additional $416 a month.
The Washita County fire departments understand that every dollar counts, especially when it comes at an expense to local residents.
Preparing for all situations
Even though Cloud Chief Fire Department is a volunteer fire department, each and every member goes through extensive training within their first year as a member to ensure they are prepared for any situation. The initial training is followed by a minimum of 24 hours of annual continuing education.
Because of their unique geographic location, the department has implemented a specific training requirement that may not even be a consideration for departments in a larger city.
“When we started, 98% of our calls were either car wrecks or grass fires,” Cook said. “So just a requirement that I’ve put on everybody is a class called Wildland Fundamentals, which is a 16-hour class on grass fires.”
In the 11 years since the establishment of the Cloud Chief Fire Department, they have only had one structure fire in their district. Although when neighboring departments encounter large structure fires within their own district that become more than they can handle, Cloud Chief is always there to lend a helping hand through mutual aid.
In addition to the Wildland Fundamentals training, all new volunteer firefighters must complete the Firefighter 1 training course. Geared mainly towards structural training, this 100-hour class is a national certification that can be earned anywhere in the nation. This is the same training that new firefighters across the country must complete, from the Los Angeles Fire Department to the New York City Fire Department.
“The Firefighter 1 class is the same class that if you got a full-time job at a fire department somewhere and did that for a living,” Cook said. “It’s the same class our volunteers are taking, so they basically have to live up to the same standards as full-time paid firefighters, but they’re volunteer.”
During Firefighter 1 training, trainees learn the ins and outs of their uniform and equipment, such as learning about their bunker gear and how to properly put it on; how to use their breathing bottles and ensure they are working properly; and how to extinguish a variety of different fires.
With the frequency that the department was responding to vehicle accidents, many volunteers took the initiative to further their training to better serve victims once they arrive on scene. Cook began training as an emergency medical technician, even riding in an ambulance for a while to gain more hands-on experience, while others within the department have spent many hours to become emergency medical responders.
With other nationally required training such as extrication (how to safely dismantle a car with a victim inside), medical training, structure fire training, national incident management training and instant command structure training – along with additional training requirements for anyone serving as an officer – many individuals who would want to serve as a volunteer firefighter within their rural community back away because of the time commitment and training program.
“The training really stacks up and that hurts the recruitment, in my opinion, with this list of requirements,” Cook said. “It’s good training, and they need the training, and training is great, but the requirements on a volunteer – they are volunteering their time, they’re taking away from their job, and they’ve got hours upon hours upon hours of classes that are required.”
It is all a balancing act
Balancing the duties of being a husband, a father, a farmer, a cattle rancher and a fire chief mean Cook’s day is never over.
“I’ve got 15 guys on this department that rely on me no matter where I’m at,” Cook said. “I was in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Action Tour or I was at the annual Farm Bureau meeting – our page goes off, my phone rings and instantly all my firefighters start calling me. It doesn’t matter where I’m at, anywhere in the United States, they start calling me.”
Arguably one of the most important duties is the behind-the-scenes work. After long days in the field or at the station, Cook returns home where he and his wife, Jordan, ensure all paperwork is up to date and completed, such as vehicle insurance, workers compensation and grant applications that would help the department purchase much-needed supplies.
With the stress most farmers and ranchers are already facing, coupled with the long days and nights of calving season, planting, harvest and general day-to-day requirements to keep their business operational, farmers and ranchers do not have a lot of time to spare to begin with.
“It really takes a different cut of person to want to take out that much of their personal time away from their job, away from their farms, away from their families to go do all this training to become a firefighter,” Cook said. “It’s really a strain.”
Although it is not easy, each and every volunteer has managed to find their own special way of balancing time on the farm, time at their job in town, time at the fire department and time with their family.
“A lot of times guys will show up (to the station) for a fire with their wife in the pickup. We’ll go to fires and (their wife will) go somewhere and come back and pick them up,” Cook said. “It’s kind of a family affair a lot.”
But for most of the Cloud Chief Fire Department volunteers, things have not always been this way. Many of the volunteers have been involved since the beginning, but in 2008, most were not married.
“Actually, when I started the department here I was just married,” Cook said. “We got married in 2007 and we established the department in 2008. So I was still in college and my wife was still in college, being in our first year of marriage and starting a fire department and doing the farming.”
Even with all the long days and long nights, Cook would not have it any other way. Every time he arrives at the station, he sees all the hard work he and his team have put in throughout the years to ensure the safety of their community.
“It’s just hard to think about what my life would be like without the fire department right now,” Cook said. “From the trucks we first had to the trucks we have now, it’s just blood, sweat and tears from everyone on the department. Me and all my guys.”