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Fire Chief Pete Luttrell and other members of the Avoca Fire and Rescue recently announced that the department is considering dissolving or contracting with another department due to low volunteer numbers. (Alyson Buschena/Daily Globe)

Avoca Fire Department in jeopardy

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News Worthington,Minnesota 56187 http://www.dglobe.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/4/0711/23-avoca.jpg?itok=w-Xvz-wU
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Avoca Fire Department in jeopardy
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

AVOCA -- The community of Avoca has a long firefighting history, but that proud tradition could soon go up in smoke.

In a letter sent out to the 147 residents of Avoca, the leaders of Avoca Fire and Rescue announced that due to a lack of volunteers, they were exploring options to dissolve the fire and rescue department.

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"We had to let people in this town know that if they had a problem, it might take mutual aid (assistance from neighboring fire departments) to get someone here, which means the response time will change," said Justine Wettschreck, certified first responder and medical officer for Avoca Fire and Rescue.

Avoca Fire and Rescue currently has two certified firefighters and another who has just volunteered but doesn't have certification yet. There are also four certified first responders and another who wants to become certified.

In addition to providing firefighting services for the city of Avoca, the fire department also covers more than 10 sections of Lime Lake Township, in which Avoca is located. Slayton, Currie and Fulda fire departments currently cover the rest of the township.

While there is no state statute regulating how many certified firefighters a department needs to remain operational, Avoca Fire Chief Pete Luttrell said it comes down to the safety of those fighting the fires.

"One of the things we've had to give serious consideration to is our own safety. One of the things they teach you -- granted it's a crazy job -- but you still do it as safely as possible. Because its labor intensive." Wettschreck added.

In the past couple months, multiple volunteers have retired, moved or decided to focus on other priorities.

"It just gets overwhelming, working on trucks all the time and the fire department stuff. If something breaks down, you have to go work on it -- it just takes over your personal time," Luttrell said.

To continue as it has, the Avoca fire department needs to recruit at least 10 volunteers who live within a five-minute driving response time to the fire hall by April 1.

It isn't a commitment to be taken lightly. Training a new firefighter costs the city more than $1,000 per person and requires a time commitment to complete the certification process, attend monthly meetings, work on equipment and respond to calls.

"You can't just show up where there is a fire. You have to be trained and know that the guy behind you is just as trained and has been there before," Wettschreck said.

Though the number of volunteers in the department may be fewer, the responsibilities they shoulder are not.

"Everything has to be ready all the time, and keeping everything maintained can be difficult," Wettschreck said.

Luttrell and Wettschreck said that ideally, Avoca Fire and Rescue would like to contract with another town and maintain its current membership.

"Even though we'd be contracting, we could still be involved with running water and helping with things that we're trained to do if there is a fire in our area. It's something we're hoping is feasible, but it's still in the process," she added.

Given Avoca Fire and Rescue's small territory, Wettschreck said it doesn't receive as many calls as some of the bigger fire departments.

"Sometimes we won't get anything for six months, and then we'll get three in one day. You never know," she said.

Changing the structure of Avoca Fire and Rescue could also impact residents' home insurance policies, Bud Kooiman of Farmers Insurance Agency of Avoca said.

He explained that cities are given a protection rating based on whether there is a fire department and fire hydrants within a town. Having a lake can also lower a town's protection rating. Rural areas and farm houses are considered to be unprotected.

"The better the department, the better the protection rating. Most cities with a fire department are between a one and an eight. Avoca is a class nine and right between protected and unprotected," he said, adding that the lower the number, the better protected a city is considered to be.

If Avoca lost its fire department, Kooiman said he would anticipate a rise in home insurance prices.

"I would say people could expect to pay probably $200 a year more or so," he said.

According to a history of the Avoca Fire and Rescue included in Avoca's 125th Anniversary paper, two large fires have swept through Avoca, the first in January 1907 when a barbershop, real estate office, butcher shop, hardware store, harness shop and several small structures were destroyed.

At the time, the village was without fire protection as the waterworks system was out of order and there was no water in the fire tank.

In 1952, another large fire broke out in Avoca, destroying 10 buildings and causing an estimated $1 million in damage.

Again, the firefighters had no water due to 24-below-zero temperatures, and a bulldozer was used to create a fire lane. At the time, it was considered Murray County's worst fire of the century.

The next step for the Avoca Fire and Rescue will be contacting other local fire departments to determine level of interest in contracting with Avoca.

Public hearings regarding the future of the department have been talked about, but are not required by state statute.

Anyone who has comments or questions or would like to volunteer for the Avoca Fire and Rescue should contact Luttrell, (507) 350-9892, or Wettschreck, (507) 360-5062.

Daily Globe Reporter Alyson Buschena may be reached at

376-7322.

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Alyson Buschena
Alyson joined the Daily Globe newsroom staff after spending a year in Latin America. A native of Fulda and graduate of the University of Northwestern, she has a bachelor's degree in English with a dual concentration in Literature and Writing and a minor in Spanish. At the Daily Globe, Alyson covers the crime beat as well as Pipestone and Murray counties, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, reading, and cooking. More of Alyson's writing can be found at http://throughthelookingglass.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7322
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