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Still battling blazes



Published: Sun, July 8, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Bucky Clarke hasn't quit fighting fires. He just doesn't want the job of chief anymore.

By HAROLD GWIN

VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU

WHEATLAND, Pa. -- The guy who was turned down when he first tried to join the Wheatland Volunteer Fire Department at 18 has stepped down after serving as the department's chief for 22 years.

It just wasn't fun anymore, said Andrew "Bucky" Clarke, whose last day as chief was June 30.

"It was just a decision I had to make. It was my own decision to step down," he said.

David Myers, who has served as assistant chief for the past 18 months, has taken over the chief's duties.

Clarke isn't leaving the department, however.

"I will remain as coordinator of fire service operations for a while," he said, adding that he's not going to quit fighting fires.

"I'm going to handle their daytime calls," he said. "As long as my health stays good -- I'm 50 years old -- I'm going to give them the service."

What he's doing: He is still vice president of the fire company, a post he'll have through December 2002, and he works as a part-time firefighter for the neighboring city of Farrell.

Clarke said he first tried to join the department 32 years ago when he was just 18.

His father, David, was a member of the department at the time, and there was some animosity between his dad and some other members.

The members vote on accepting new firefighters and, at that time, it took only three negative votes to prevent someone from joining, Clarke said, adding that those angry with his father voted against him.

The rules have since changed, he said, explaining that a simple majority vote is all that is needed to gain membership in the company.

Clarke said he applied again in 1975 after his father had died.

"I thought it was time to try again," he said. This time, he was accepted.

Moved up to captain: He was only a firefighter for a short time before being appointed captain in September of that year to fill a vacancy. He had a knack for the job and was elected assistant chief effective in January 1976 and became chief a few years later.

"This is the first time in 25 years that I'll have a nonwhite [officer's] helmet," he said, noting he's already traded his chief's helmet in for a firefighter's orange headgear.

The department had 30 members shortly after Clarke became chief, but the number has dwindled over the years. Today, there are 15 on the roster and only about eight who regularly show up at fires, Clarke added.

"We're getting to be an old department," he continued, noting that most of the firefighters are 35 and older and people usually drop out of the volunteer fire service around the age of 40.

"I was always the first one in," he said, explaining that his job as an equipment operator for the borough kept him in close proximity to the fire station at the municipal building on Broadway Avenue. He was always the first to take a truck to the scene of a blaze.

The down side: The firefighter said that one of the headaches of being chief is that, with a small volunteer department, you never knew if anyone else was going to show up.

"I've been in some bad fires," he said, recalling that he broke his neck at a 1983 house fire when a ladder he was standing on to gain access to the attic tipped over. He fell, landing on the airpack on his back, he said.

Clarke also broke seven ribs in a fall when a second floor in a burning house collapsed beneath him in 1984.

He fell to the first floor and went straight through a narrow cold-air return register into the basement, he said.

The register opening was narrow but he hit it just right to continue his fall, he said.

"It stripped me to my bunker pants and my boots, he said, noting that his coat, helmet and gear were torn off at the register opening on the first floor.

The name Clarke will disappear from the rolls of the fire department with him, he said, noting that neither his son nor his daughter have expressed an interest in being firefighters.

gwin@vindy.com




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