In the summer of 1958, the Stony Hill volunteer fire department was founded in rural northern Wake County. Its 17 members operated out of a fire station that was little more than a tin shed. On it hung a sign that mistakenly read “Stoney Hill” – a misspelling which would remain, uncorrected, for decades.
Now, in its 60th summer, Stony Hill’s fire department will soon be operating under a different name. On July 1, the rural fire department will merge with its close cousin to the south, the Bay Leaf volunteer fire department, which was founded in 1961.
Bay Leaf and Stony Hill will consolidate to become the Northern Wake Fire Department. With 52 paid firefighters and about 100 volunteers, it will be one of the largest fire departments in Wake and the largest combination department – that is, part volunteer and part paid employees – in the state.
The consolidating fire departments reflect a changing community. When Stony Hill and Bay Leaf founded their all-volunteer departments, the two communities consisted mainly of small tobacco farms well beyond the nearby cities of Raleigh and Durham.
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“This was dirt road country,” said Hal Atkinson Jr., a self-described Bay Leaf old-timer. He moved to the community in 1976 and began volunteering for the fire department.
“We were a little fire department, running 75 calls a year, selling chickens to raise money,” Atkinson said. “Had a lot of fun doing it and did a lot of good service for the community.”
But as the suburbs of Raleigh pushed north, tobacco fields have given way to subdivisions, and farmhouses have been replaced by 10,000-square-foot mansions. Now, 33,000 people and counting live in Bay Leaf and Stony Hill.
Urban sprawl is the principal challenge for rural fire departments across the nation, which face greater service demands along with waning numbers of volunteer firefighters.
As they merge into the Northern Wake Fire Department, leaders from Bay Leaf and Stony Hill hope to streamline their operations to serve the growing community, while continuing to attract volunteers.
A changing community
Ever since he can remember, A.C. Rich tagged along with his father when the Stony Hill fire sirens sounded.
In 1984, when he turned 18, Rich followed in his father’s footsteps and became a volunteer firefighter. Now, he is the fire chief at Stony Hill, and soon to be the deputy chief of the new Northern Wake department.
Rich watched as the community began to transform after the Neuse River was dammed in 1981, creating Falls Lake. The population boom began in the 1980s in Bay Leaf and the late ‘90s in Stony Hill. Towns that were once populated by farmers transitioned into residential communities for workers in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park.
Suburban growth has challenged Wake’s rural fire departments, said Nick Campasano, director of Wake’s Fire Services Department. Campasano oversees Wake’s 22 fire departments, which include 13 rural, traditionally volunteer departments.
Once upon a time, being a volunteer firefighter was relatively simple, said Campasano.
“When the sirens went off, you just left what you were doing and ran to the fire station and you jumped on a truck,” he said.
But volunteer firefighters don’t have the time they used to have to fight fires. It’s easy to drop everything and run to the station when you’re a farmer, but it’s harder when you work in Research Triangle Park.
And as massive houses began to fill new subdivisions in northern Wake, volunteer firefighters faced the increased difficulty of bigger and bigger fires. As the community expanded, so did the volume of calls, including ones that require emergency medical training.
Eventually, being a small volunteer fire department didn’t cut it anymore in the growing community. Bay Leaf was forced to change, hiring its first career firefighters in 1985; Stony Hill followed suit in the late 1990s. Both departments, along with the 11 other traditionally volunteer departments in the county, are now combination departments.
Paid and volunteer
Across the nation, many traditionally all-volunteer fire departments have turned to the combination model as volunteerism slips and communities grow. While most of the state and the country’s departments are still all-volunteer, combination departments are on the rise, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Lagging volunteerism has also necessitated more professional firefighters. NFPA data show that despite population increases, the number of volunteer firefighters has remained stagnant since the mid-1980s.
The switch to paid firefighters is not easy. For one, it’s a significant expense for fire rural departments, many of which operate as nonprofits.
Transitioning to combination departments can also cause tension between career firefighters and volunteers. There are entire websites and training dedicated to mitigating conflict between the groups.
In Wake, many rural fire departments have felt the pressure of change. In 2004, the county had 606 volunteer firefighters, said Campasano. Last year, there were only 501.
But Bay Leaf and Stony Hill have bucked the county trend. Despite transitioning to the combination model, both departments boast some of the most robust volunteer numbers in the Triangle.
And Atkinson, the former Bay Leaf volunteer firefighter who now serves on the department’s board of directors, said volunteer and career firefighters work together when it counts.
“Firemen, they all wear the same turnout gear,” he said. “If the bell goes off, I could walk out of here and pull on a set of turnout gear and you can’t tell me from a guy who does it full time.”
Looking to the future
Inside Bay Leaf’s Station No. 1, a modern, red brick building on Six Forks Road, firefighters wearing Bay Leaf and Stony Hill gear assembled for training this week.
The building will become the headquarters of the Northern Wake Fire Department on July 1. Around the trainees, the pristine fire trucks were complete with new Northern Wake Fire Department decals.
Some of these firefighters recall the era when the Bay Leaf department consisted of a home-made truck created with a welding torch. Steve Nipper’s father worked as a Bay Leaf volunteer for more than 20 years, and he started as a volunteer in 1991, when he was only 16.
“The fire department is like a brotherhood,” he said. “Once you get in and you’re a member, it’s family.”
Capt. Roddy Hubbell is the longest-tenured employee at the Bay Leaf station. He was one of the first professionals hired, back in 1987. Now, he’s supervising joint trainings of Bay Leaf and Stony Hill volunteers, and standardizing procedures between the two departments – things as simple, yet important, as how firefighters load hoses onto trucks.
“Our district has grown significantly, and so the responsibilities are going to be more,” Hubbell said. “But I think (consolidating) is going to be a fantastic opportunity for a lot of people.”
Tim Pope, the chief of the Bay Leaf Fire Department, has been a firefighter since 1980, when he started as a volunteer in his hometown of Kenly.
Come July 1, Pope will take over as chief of the newly consolidated department. It’s a big responsibility: The Northern Wake Fire Department will cover 70 square miles and protect an estimated $6.7 billion in property. Last year, the two departments fielded 1,620 calls, a little under half of which were fire-related; this year’s call volume will likely surpass that.
“We felt that by consolidating together and getting the best of both departments, we could create something that would be sustainable for years to come,” Pope said.
Atkinson said the consolidation will help both communities face the growth ahead. Bay Leaf has grown from 120 families in 1961 to more than 25,000 people. Stony Hill has only about 8,000 residents now, but it’s expected to keep growing in the coming years.
“We’ve been there, done that; they’re heading there, doing that,” Atkinson said. “We fight fires with them every day... These are our people out here.”
Sam Killenberg: 919-829-4802