One Square Mile: The volunteer firefighters of Meriwether County

Here, volunteer firefighting is less an unpaid job than a time-honored exercise in selflessness.
Merriwether County Firefighters
Photograph by Mike Colletta

Meriwether County Fire Rescue Department | Greenville | 62 miles southwest of Atlanta
Along a red dirt road, where smoke is creeping like fog through the nearby pines, 32-year-old Dustin Owens waves a fire hose to tamp down a one-acre brush fire. He quickly determines the probable cause, pointing to bark-free veins atop a tall tree: lightning. With its rolling loblolly forests, cattle pastures, and towns chock-full of Victorian homes, Meriwether County is a picturesque—and substantial—piece of metro Atlanta’s southern fringe, bigger than Cobb and Clayton counties combined. When hell breaks loose anywhere across this vast jurisdiction—a fire, tornado, flood, body in a lake, plane crash, stranded cat in a tree—the volunteers of Meriwether County Fire Rescue Department are tasked with making it right. Here, volunteer firefighting is less an unpaid job than a time-honored exercise in selflessness. Numbering roughly 150 and divided among 13 districts, the volunteers range in age from 18 to almost 80. Emergency messages delivered via smartphone apps or squawking handheld radios pull them away from golf outings, Harley rides, landscaping jobs, anniversary dinners, even Christmas mornings. “My wife complains I have a radio in the bathroom, one in the hall, [another] in the den because I don’t want to miss anything,” says John Weiher, an ice cream distributor by day. With not a minute to spare, they’ll clamber into their gear wearing swim trunks or their Sunday best. Not all stick with it, as county chief Alfons Pynenburg explains: “To get up at 2 a.m. and go to a structure fire, come home at 5, and then go to work—it’s a sacrifice.” On some calls the true cost is invisible. Like the ones involving family and friends, or the crashed truck driver who was chatty one minute and bled of life the next. That’s when volunteer teams are forged into families. With a stogie bouncing on his lips, Lee Todd—a 62-year-old attorney and judge who’s been fighting Meriwether fires since his mother had to drop him off at them—acknowledges it’s “getting harder to get people to do civic-minded things.” But then he mentions his 11-year-old grandson, a sponge of a kid who loves responding to calls, watching from a safe distance as Grandpa does what needs to be done.

This article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue.