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Published June 29 2010

Volunteer firefighters first storm responders

Hours after Bruce Roed helped pull a woman from the rubble of Mentor’s tornado damage, he realized she was a colleague.

In fact, Patricia Wilber of Grand Forks was so seriously injured after a freezer collapsed on her in the small Minnesota town that her husband of 40 years could barely recognize her in the hospital that night.

Her fate, though, could’ve been worse without the quick response of Mentor’s volunteer fire department.

“We were very fortunate that they were there and they had the training and equipment to do the job,” said her husband, Russ Wilber.

When tornados ripped through rural Minnesota on June 17, it was volunteer firefighters like Roed who were first on the scene.

Accustomed to calls of grass fires or car accidents, they aren’t usually thrust into the center of such widespread disaster.

“It was the most serious, most difficult (situation) … that they’ve ever encountered or they ever will encounter,” said Roed, a 40-year firefighter and a coordinator for state fire training.

The volunteers receive about 140 hours of training, though many departments like Mentor’s also require training throughout the year. They work, though, for free.

“Nobody gets paid a nickel for anything,” he said. “There’s an awfully lot of training that goes on that … nobody knows about, especially in the volunteer ranks.”

About two weeks ago, it proved worthwhile.

After Roed followed the funnel cloud rolling by Mentor (population 149), he paged his 30 volunteers to the town about 50 miles east of Grand Forks.

At the town’s convenience store, which was obliterated by the tornado, firefighters pulled out Wes Michaels, who died after sheltering his daughter and Pat Wilber and another woman in the store’s walk-in cooler.

They then used a jaws tool to lift a freezer that had trapped Wilber. She was treated until an ambulance arrived to take her to a hospital. She’s expected to be released Wednesday.

It wasn’t until a police officer showed Roed Wilber’s driver’s license hours later that he realized who she was.

Running into familiar faces on calls isn’t unusual for volunteer fire fighters.

“Small towns, small communities are very vulnerable to that because you know everybody,” he said. “That can be very hard.”

Two hours southeast of there, Dean Uselman was being tested as Wadena’s fire chief of two months.

Despite the phone lines and pagers being down, his 20 volunteer firefighters quickly assembled, searching for victims and controlling gas leaks after a tornado whipped through west-central Minnesota.

“We were the only ones on the scene right away,” Uselman said. “This is by far the worst incident we’ve ever been involved in. You can’t prepare for something like this.”

Now, the Mentor and Wadena volunteer firefighters hope to settle back into routine – their full-time jobs and the 30 to 70 calls they receive a year.

They won’t return to routine without thanks.

Families like the Wilbers are showing their appreciation for the volunteers. After all, without them, the response time would’ve been much greater for tornado victims that day.

“The community thinks well of us, and that’s a good thing,” Roed said. “It’s one thing to do it for nothing when you’re appreciated.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515