Don Voakes’ clearest memories of the 21 years he spent as a Pine Strawberry Fire Department engineer and EMT might not be battling inferno-like wildfires or answering life-threatening medical calls.
Rather the recollections are of the close knit camaraderie of a fire station.
“The firemen were like a family outside my family,” said Voakes. “You eat, sleep and live with your (fellow) firemen.
“You get to know each other very well and I’ll miss them.”
Voakes, who was a DPS officer for 16 years before joining the fire department, retired in ceremonies held July 16 at the Pine fire station.
Today, Voakes is not completely certain why he gave up law enforcement for firefighting. He said Pine-Strawberry firefighters had encouraged him for years to join them but he reasoned, “running into a burning home didn’t sound like something, I wanted to do.”
But he eventually decided it was a challenge he would like to take on.
As a veteran fireman in the two mountain hamlets, Voakes has watched the department blossom from a small firefighting outfit with nine full- and part-time firefighters into one that now boasts 18 full-time, career firefighters and more than eight on-call reserves.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, a lot of growth,” he said. “And I’m certain it (growth) will continue with new chief (Gary) Morris.”
While Voakes has many fond memories of his years with the department, he also harbors some harrowing recollections.
“When you have to work on someone you know, whether it’s a car accident, medical or something else, it can be traumatic,” he said. “Sometimes you go to an accident and don’t recognize the vehicle, but then you see those involved are people you know, people you see every day.”
Although Voakes has retired, he will continue to work, mostly during the summer months, on Type 1, 2 and 3 U.S. Forest Service Incident Management Teams.
“I’ve been doing that since 2001 and I’ve been to dozens of hurricanes, fires and other disasters,” he said.
Voakes’ departure doesn’t mean his family’s firefighting legacy in Pine and Strawberry has ended.
His son, Paul, is a fire captain and the training coordinator for PSFD.