When a grass and tractor fire ignited last Saturday near Kennebec, four members of the Bowar family helped put out the fire.
With the assistant fire chief, a captain and two other firemen in the family serving on the Kennebec Volunteer Fire Department, fighting fires is a family affair for the Bowars. Other family members also get into the act, bringing the firefighters refreshments when it gets hot.
Many small towns in the state have strong family lines in the volunteer firefighter ranks, but Kennebec seems an exception. Not only are there four Bowars suiting up for the department, but also three father-son duos.
Kennebec Fire Chief and Lyman County Sheriff Don Manger said he isn’t sure why so many families continue with the department generation after generation, but thought maybe it had something to do with the small town lifestyle.
“I think most people out here are kind of volunteer minded,” he said. “People from small communities like this kind of like helping one another out.”
At 73, Charley Bowar is the oldest firefighter in his family and has given 45 years to the Kennebec department. He continues to captain a six-wheel-drive fire truck when he’s needed.
“I guess I just wanted to be involved,” he said of when he first joined the Kennebec department in the early 1960s.
Now Charley’s son, Rod Bowar, and two of his sons, Chaz Bowar, 18, and Laddy Christensen, 27, all serve with the Kennebec Volunteer Fire Department. Chaz joined the department after his birthday in February.
“I wanted to stay on long enough ’til my grandsons got on here,” said Charley. “I guess I just wanted to go to a fire with them.”
Rod Bowar said his youngest son always wanted to fight fires with his family.
“(Chaz) has wanted to for a long time. I felt pretty proud when he wanted to,” he said. “I think my dad takes a lot of pride in it. I think it’s a good thing — it’s a good experience for young people. … It’s a positive experience all the way around.”
Rod Bowar, 44, says it’s likely he’ll be involved with the department for a long time after he’s retired, just like his father.
“I think about some day when I retire from work, I’d still like to be involved,” he said. “Whether it’s just helping around the firehouse or doing support things. Sometimes that’s harder than the firefighting.”
Rod Bowar says the attraction to the fire department has been strong for his family. The department is big for others in the community, too; the 30 firemen on the roster comprise 10 percent of the town’s population.
The department boasts six trucks that are used to cover some 500 square miles near the Lyman County town. Kennebec also built a new fire hall in 2003 with the help of a $100,000 grant. Donations and free labor poured in and the town put up what Bowar says is a $280,000 building for $100,000.
“That was a credit to the whole community,” said Bowar. “Our community is very supportive and very generous to the fire department.”
Rod, who speaks proudly of the young and active nature of the department, said he received his “calling” to help at fires, quite literally, when he 18.
“I was just out of high school and the fire whistle was blowing,” he said. “Whoever I was standing beside said, ‘You need to go,’ so I went. After (the fire) I filled out an application. I’m still there.”
Now he is the assistant fire chief and commands the fire crews when the fire chief isn’t able to get out to a call. Of the department’s 30 volunteer firefighters, 19 are very active, Rod Bowar said. Around 15 have received and completed “red card” training, qualifying them to help fight large fires safely in the Black Hills or other areas around the state, Bowar said.
The Bowars are not the only family to boast several generations of firefighters in Kennebec. Manger’s son, Steve, serves as a captain in the department. Willis and Monte Houchin, and Steve and Tom Hills are two other father-son duos.
Another connection running through the department is that seven of the town’s firefighters and EMTs are employed with Rod Bowar’s company, the Kennebec Telephone Company.
“We’ve got a company policy that as long as the supervisor OKs it, they’re free to go (to emergency calls),” he said. “We will continue to pay them just like they’re here from 8 to 5. It’s a very important piece of the community. If somebody’s hurt out there it’s more than likely one of our customers and that’s important to us. It’s not only your customers; it might be your friend or family out there.”
In order to keep the department rolling with young, active members, Bowar said the firehouse is starting a firefighter cadet program to encourage participation in the community’s youth, ages 14-18.
“We’ve got a lot of good things going on now,” said Bowar. “… If we get the young guys going … when they turn 18, they’re ready to go.”