Herron Island is a beautiful place, barely detached by water off the west side of the Key Peninsula. According to a longtime resident who with her husband purchased property on Herron in 1963 and moved there permanently in 1978, Herron was mainly developed by the Herron Island Development Co. of Seattle during the 1950s and ‘60s. It was subsequently subdivided for profit, and now has 90 year-round residents. In addition, Herron Island has become a getaway for retirees and summer vacationers, many from Texas and beyond.
However, this creates a new problem: More houses that can burn and more people who can be hurt. Not a small problem for Fire District 16.
The good part of that is that if something happens to a resident or if a house catches fire, everyone tries to pitch in and help. The bad part is that if the neighbors don’t pitch in and help, it may be a long wait for the fire department arrival.
It’s all in the tides. It can be as fast as an eight-minute ride on the ferry for the firefighters or as long as 30 in low tide, not including the time from the station in Key Center to the ferry. It is because of this delay that the volunteers are so important to control a situation until FD 16 gets there.
According to Bill and Claudia Jones, Herron Island volunteer firefighter coordinators, the last time there was a purposely-started fire (a building contractor burning leftovers who didn’t make sure it was completely out), the volunteers drove around and around the island, but couldn’t see the smoke. The fire was started on a lower beach and the smoke was blowing over the water. By the time the volunteers were alerted to the position of the fire from someone offshore (down wind on Hartstene Island), the fire had crawled underground through huckleberry roots and had burned out half the stairs on the house. The folks on Hartstene had begun to boat over and throw water on the fire, which prevented more damage. It was a close call — and a good example of an inaccessible area.
Herron Island is approximately 1 1/2 miles long, 1 mile wide and 3 miles around and has three hydrants on it, one on each end and one in the middle. One is a draft hydrant (the top of it is painted black, that’s how you can tell), which means it uses suction to pull the water out, taking even more time to set up the equipment. The other two hydrants have recently been upgraded, so they have fairly good pressure available to them. They are Class C, the lowest class at less than 500 gallons per minute. Island residents are footing the bill for the upgrade, in addition to their annual assessment to live there (a bit over $900).
The ambulance and fire truck for the volunteer department are parked in the community center’s building, which also belongs to the island’s maintenance folks. The back of the building has a kitchen and a space for lockers to store Christmas decorations and other community items. The truck and ambulance have to be moved outside if there is a meeting, as there is no other space to put chairs for people to sit except where the vehicles are parked. Even the baseball field/park behind is used as the landing area for helicopters when needed.
All the roads on Herron Island are gravel and circular. There is no blacktop anywhere except by the ferry dock and the boat launch. One long road is one way. The situation makes driving the fire truck difficult. Rescuers can only approach those houses from one end, and if there is a fire on the other end, they would have to make sure, if they chose to approach from the other side, that they would not cause an accident.
A couple of steep dirt roads go down so deep it feels like a roller coaster. Driving a fire truck down that road is a scary proposition, but it has to be done, since some very expensive retirement houses are down there (including the residence of the creator of Mountain Mist, according to residents).
The volunteers perform 200 to 300 hours of training per year, have two drills per month and work one 12-hour shift minimum quarterly.
They have managed to reduce response times by getting most residents to purchase “Vital Signs,” the red reflective signs the fire department sells. In a medical emergency, there are two designated drivers for the ambulance. There is only one defibrillator kit on the island, and their medical equipment is in short supply.
When the volunteers do their scouting runs checking for signs of fire by a slow drive-around, they look for things like smoke, debris piles, dead trees or grass, keeping a watchful eye on neighbors who may be junking up their yards with flammable items. They have no problem stopping to talk with someone who needs to clean up. It’s in everyone’s best interest— it’s a small island, and fire travels fast. They make reports that help folks know when they need to coordinate roadside cleanups, to clear away the offending flammables.
All in all, the volunteer firefighters on Herron Island care very much for their community. They work hard to help coordinate fire service and rescues with the fire district. If they didn’t, it would be a dangerous place to live.