BOOTJACK, Calif. — Ruby Pearson is 5-feet-2, 105 pounds and fire chief in this tiny mountain town 70 miles north of Fresno.
Being a member of the local fire department is a family affair for Pearson, 40, one of a handful of female fire chiefs in California. Her husband, Keith, 41, a truck driver, is the town fire captain. Her two sons, Robert, 18, a high school senior, and Richard, 21, a well driller, are members of the town's volunteer fire department.
It isn't unusual to find husbands and wives or fathers and sons who belong to the same volunteer fire departments in California's remote, rural areas.
Fifteen miles from Bootjack, for example, is Mariposa County's other female fire chief, Debra Roufs, 32, head of the Midpines Fire Department for the last four years.
Her husband, Don, 48, an upholsterer, is one of 14 firefighters at Midpines, population 900.
Mountainous Mariposa County, with 15,000 residents, has no incorporated towns. All 270 firefighters are members of 14 small-town volunteer departments.
"None of us gets paid for being a firefighter. It is our way of doing something for our community. We would not be doing this if we did not love it," explained Roufs, who is also a dispatcher for the Mariposa County Sheriff's Department.
All fire stations in Mariposa County have been paid for through donations and fund-raisers and constructed by volunteer firefighters, auxiliary groups and members of the community.
In Bootjack, population 300, the firehouse was in an old chicken coop until the community raised $26,000 for materials and volunteers built the two-story fire department valued at and insured for $140,000. Fire Chief Pearson's father donated half an acre for the site.
Residents raised another $8,000 for fire hoses and other equipment. A developer in the area donated a 1963 Dodge fire truck and the department paid $1 to Los Angeles for a surplus 1962 GMC fire truck.
Beth Marino, 60, founder-president of the Bootjack Fire Department auxiliary, heads up the fund-raising. "We roll out the fire trucks and have bingo games in the fire house every month. We have a pancake breakfast every other month, frequent flea markets and sell T-shirts that say: 'If you don't know where a bootjack is, you've flunked geography.' "
In fact, volunteer fire departments are the hub of social activity in Mariposa County and many other rural California locations.
"There isn't much to do in this neck of the woods, so, many people join the fire departments or auxiliaries. This is where the action is. The whole town turns out for our fund-raisers," said Ruby Pearson.
A plaque in the Midpines firehouse lists 63 local residents who contribute more than $100 each year to the fire department. "An awful lot of people donate $25 and $50 a year," Roufs explained. Her department's big money raisers are turkey shoots, bake and rummage sales.
Volunteer companies in Mariposa County take pride in their efficient operation. To qualify for the department, a volunteer must complete a 16-week course in firefighting techniques at Columbia Community College and be certified. Firefighters are also required to spend several hours a week in training year-round.
They carry beepers at all times and respond immediately, no matter what they're doing. Shopkeepers close stores. Carpenters, plumbers and construction workers set aside their tools. Mariposa High School seniors Robert Pearson, Gordon Dulcich, 19, and Shane Warner, 18, dart from their classes, hop into pickups and head for the scene of the fire when their beepers chirp.
"Because this county is so firefighting-conscientious with year-round fire-prevention programs and well-trained fire departments, our fire insurance rates are lower than most rural, wooded, mountain areas in California," said Bob Bondshu, 58. He's been a member of the Mariposa volunteer fire department since 1957 and served as chief for 10 years. His son, Bill, 30, currently heads the department. Both are insurance agents.