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The Ester Volunteer Fire Department is a unique department in a unique place

 Of the 29 members of the Ester Volunteer Fire Department, only three are paid staff. (John Dougherty/KTVF)
Of the 29 members of the Ester Volunteer Fire Department, only three are paid staff. (John Dougherty/KTVF) (KTVF)
Published: May. 22, 2020 at 4:38 PM AKDT
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Just outside of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway is the small community of Ester, Alaska. The town of Ester prides itself in being unique. Often referring to itself as the ‘People’s Republic of Ester.’

The Fire Department there is no different. It is made up largely of unpaid volunteer help. Of the 29 members, there are only three paid staff.

"We, I believe, rely on our volunteers more than the majority of departments," Fire Chief Jeff Conner said.

He explained that many fire departments have volunteers that help, but because of their budget, Ester has to rely on them more than most.

On Wednesdays, he said the volunteers do it all, “There is no paid people here. We have 29 total members, three paid people... and on Wednesdays, the volunteers have stepped up in covering that entire 24 hour period."

The volunteers have to sacrifice to be there. "We are mostly volunteer staffing which means that people give up their nights and their weekends, and their time with their family to come here and respond to calls and take care of other peoples' families," said Riley Witte, an engineer and one of the only paid people at the station.

Chief Connor said that the volunteers come from all walks of life -- like Gina Schlobohm, a new volunteer. Schlobohm is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has a background in mechanics. She said that her research over the summer got canceled, so she decided to volunteer.

"[I] Joined here and ended up working on the trucks a lot,” Schlobohm said. “I also am doing my EMT training and firefighter training, but I just get sucked into truck projects a lot which I am totally fine with."

She said that having so many volunteers helps the atmosphere. “It's like everybody wants to be here, so there is pretty much a really positive attitude around here."

Chief Conner agrees with her, “"It's not a job to them, it is definitely a calling -- and I appreciate their service." He said that they are able to fight fires just as well as the other departments.

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