Saturday at 7 a.m. marked the end of North Columbia Fire and Rescue's service to Columbia County as Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue assumed control of fire service to the unincorporated parts of the county.
Though the department was mostly volunteer, North Columbia employed three firefighters: John Payne in Winfield, Keith Shamber in Appling and Carla McCorkle in Leah. As of Friday, Payne was hired on by Martinez-Columbia, but Shamber and McCorkle had yet to find paid positions with other departments, North Columbia Chief Tom McFarland said.
"I'm torn, I'm hurt so bad," said McCorkle, who was a paid firefighter for more than a year after volunteering for six years. "I've been doing it for the community; that's the reason I've stuck with it so long. I love it. Obviously, it's in my blood."
Some former volunteers with North Columbia chose to join departments in McDuffie and Lincoln counties, some joined Martinez-Columbia and others quit firefighting altogether, said McFarland, who is retiring after leading the department as its only chief and volunteering with the preceding Appling department since 1984.
McCorkle said she is considering volunteering with Lincoln County and is awaiting a response from the Washington Fire Department for a paid position in that city.
"I'm ready for this whole fire department thing to blow over like a storm," said former Lt. Chris McAlister of the Appling station. "I guess it feels sort of like a bad divorce."
McAlister, who has volunteered since 2001, expressed his displeasure with the dissolution as drivers honked their horns and waved as they passed the Appling station house.
"The hardest thing for me will be standing on my front porch listening to a call go out in my area, perhaps within a couple of blocks, and knowing I could be on that scene in a couple seconds and that the closest engine will have to come from Cobbham Road at Ray Owens," he said.
Pam Tucker, the director of Columbia County's emergency services department, has said the fire service in the area will improve once Martinez-Columbia takes over.
"I've received many calls from people in that area who are very happy that they will now have 24/7 coverage by a Class 4 fire department," she said. Tucker said the work of North Columbia volunteers will not be forgotten.
"We praise the dedication and contributions given by the volunteer firefighters out in the rural areas for so many years," she said.
"It was not an easy road to get here for any of us, but here we are, achieving a major milestone for this county and its future," Tucker said.
When the county and North Columbia could not reach an agreement to assume the department's debt in exchange for its equipment and stations, the termination of the fire service agreement left the department with more than $311,000 to pay, McFarland said.
"We're going to have to use money from selling the trucks and equipment to pay that debt," McFarland said.
Martinez-Columbia opened staffed temporary stations on Saturday on Cobbham Road in Phinizy, on Columbia Road in Appling, on Old Louisville Road west of Grovetown and on White Road south of Harlem and an unstaffed ready station in Winfield, said Martinez-Columbia Chief Doug Cooper.
A second unstaffed ready station will be built in the Pollards Corner area soon, Cooper said.
The chief said his department will welcome any qualified volunteers from North Columbia who would like to continue service to the county.
The Phinizy and Old Louisville Road stations will be staffed 24 hours a day, and the stations on Columbia and White roads will be staffed 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and supplemented by volunteers, Cooper said.
Until permanent stations are built later this year, three water tankers to be used in areas without hydrants will be housed at other Martinez-Columbia firehouses, Cooper said.
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