Martinez firefighters have been protecting Columbia County residents for 50 years.
To celebrate its longevity and service, Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue is inviting the public to a birthday party on Saturday.
"(The event is) just to celebrate and to have an open house," said Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Jim Champion. "Just to say celebrate with us, see our station, look at our trucks, try the fire safety house. ... Have a good time."
The party will be held from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. at Martinez-Columbia headquarters at 3910 Desoto Drive in Martinez, off Old Evans Road. The event is free.
Firefighters are providing lunch, birthday cake, family-friendly games and prizes, and children's activities. Firefighting gear, including trucks, will be on display.
In a half century, the department has come a long way, officials said.
Hartwell Morris started the Martinez Volunteer Fire Department in 1958 with one tanker donated from the state forestry unit. It was housed in a temporary building, built with donated materials and volunteer labor, next to the store Morris owned on Washington Road across from what is now West Town Shopping Center.
"That was headquarters," Champion said.
Morris also would answer the phone at Morris Super Market and from those conversations learned where people in the area lived, Champion said.
The department's volunteers served a 3-square-mile area, but also helped outside that region in areas off Wrightsboro Road and North Leg Road, Champion said.
The department quickly outgrew the temporary station and a permanent headquarters building was constructed on another piece of Morris' property across from the supermarket, where CSRA Camperland now is located. Volunteers built the structure with donated materials at a cost of $12,000.
The department's 43 volunteers dedicated the station in August 1961, when the department served 1,000 subscribers.
That 4,000-square-foot station included space to store the department's five vehicles, an office, sleeping quarters, a large kitchen and four rental offices adjacent to a recreation area.
"They got the first real truck," Champion said. "It was an actual pumper fire truck. It cost $11,744."
The department, which now boasts 16 stations and countywide coverage, recently purchased three new fire trucks for more than $380,000 each, Champion said.
"Early on, it was a lot different than it is now," said Champion, who has volunteered with the department for nearly 39 years. "You may be the only person on the truck when you'd leave the station."
As the Martinez-Evans area developed, the department grew as well. Engine Co. 2 opened on Gibbs Road in 1975 and Engine Co. 3 opened on Fury's Ferry Road in 1985.
With six manned fire stations, Columbia County took over funding in 2006 and the department no longer needed subscription fees to operate.
When the new headquarters station on Desoto Drive was opened in 2004, it was bittersweet for the department's longtime firefighters, because the old headquarters station on Washington Road was torn down.
"I had mixed emotions," said Administrator David Butler, who is the department's second-longest serving employee and volunteer. "I had a lot of good memories from it.
"It got to the point we couldn't get out on Washington Road when we had fire calls. Getting in and out was just a nightmare at certain times of day. We just had outgrown it. We didn't have enough room for anything."
In 1961, the department had about $4,000 in the bank and nearly $2,000 of monthly expenses, including $17.67 for gas and oil and $8.65 for gas, light and telephone, according to department board meeting minutes.
Now, the department operates on an $8.5 million budget, not including capital expenses such as trucks and fire station construction.
The 135 paid staff and 70 volunteers provide fire protection to 300 square miles, all of Columbia County except inside the city limits of Harlem and Grovetown.
Despite being a lot of work, Champion said the older volunteers have some great memories from the department's early days.
"It was very family-oriented," Champion said. "Those early days, we had a lot of fun, too."
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