Chief Jeremy Norris stands beside the newest addition to the Williamson County Fire Protection District. The 2014 model engine, which cost $350,000, is among seven main engines used for firefighting and other emergency services.
Chief Jeremy Norris stands beside the newest addition to the Williamson County Fire Protection District. The 2014 model engine, which cost $350,000, is among seven main engines used for firefighting and other emergency services.

HERRIN, Ill. — A burning semi truck loaded with bombs and a shed engulfed by a seemingly perpetual fire are but a couple of unusual incidents handled by the Williamson County Fire Protection District in its first 25 years.

The district is the second-largest in the state, encompassing 265 square miles of rural southern Illinois. It recently marked its 25th anniversary serving farmers and other rural residents of a county that is becoming more and more urbanized.

Chief Jeremy Norris leads a force of four full-time firefighters and about 65 volunteers ready to respond to emergencies that include brush fires, building conflagrations and emergency rescue operations. One a few years back began as a relatively routine call about a tractor-trailer fire on Interstate 57.

“En route we found out it was a trailer load of 1,000-pound bombs,” Norris said. “They were practice bombs headed to Pensacola, Fla., to a naval station. They told us this over the radio.”

While that bit of news was no doubt disconcerting, the call was routine, as the fire was confined to a rear axle.

“We got there and put it out real quick,” Norris said. “The bombs were not even a factor.”

Another call was a grass fire that soon engulfed an outbuilding. The massive amount of water being sprayed didn’t seem to have any effect on the flames.

“It just wouldn’t go out,” Norris said

Turns out the building had been constructed through use of an unusual “green” technology. The walls were made of 12,000 recycled, over-the-road truck tires that had been cut and stacked. It took the firefighting crew several hours, 350,000 gallons of water and use of a backhoe to finally extinguish the flames.

The fire district boasts seven facilities, each with its own equipment, including an engine, tender and brush truck. The firehouses are separated by I-57, with four on the west side and three on the east.

The main office in Herrin sits adjacent to Williamson County Airport and serves contractually as the airport’s first responder. A specialized fire truck that is provided by the airport is stationed at the fire district’s garage.

The district operates on an annual budget of $750,000. It is funded through property taxes that amount to about $50 for a $100,000 home.

Norris said savings on homeowners insurance pencils out for residents, who on average save about $150 to $200 a year because of the fire district rating.

The fire district responds to an average of 350 calls each year. Those calls include everything from brush fires to house fires to vehicle fires and extrication. The district does not provide emergency medical services.

It does often assist municipal fire departments, including those in Williamson County cities such as Marion, Herrin, Carterville and Johnston City.

Rural fire protection districts have different challenges than those in urban areas. Among them is access to water.

The Williamson district began a program several years ago in which 14 hydrants have been installed in ponds and lakes on private property around the county so that water is available within five miles of every acre.

A simple contract with the landowner is made part of the property’s deed, so that the hydrant remains despite changes of ownership. The fire district maintains the hydrants, along with the access roads to them.

The firefighting crews work in tag-team fashion.

“In a typical dispatch, a tanker will first go to the scene,” Norris said. “The second will then go the scene also, and the third goes to the hydrant and all those tankers go back there to fill. We set up a circuit. “

The tenders — trucks with water tanks — hold 2,300 gallons, which are filled in less than two minutes via the 6-inch pipes that are part of the rural hydrants.

Tenders also are equipped with inflatable water tanks that hold 2,500 gallons of water. That greatly increases the volume available for other tanker trucks going back and forth to the fire.

“The more efficient you can fill and dump, the more time you can make up going back and forth,” Norris said.

He has been with the district since it went active, in 1991, first as volunteer firefighter while he was attending college.

“We didn’t know anything then,” he said. “We had a chief who trained constantly. We loved it. We did a lot for the community.”

Equipment upgrades are constant, and the district plans for them within its budget. Norris’s first vehicle was a 1956 International gas motor truck with a 750-gallon pump and 500-gallon tank.

“Our newest one is a 2014 model with a 1,750 (gallon per minute) pump, 1,000 gallons of water and a 450-horse diesel motor,” he said. “We usually plan for upgrades. Our vehicle replacement is ongoing every year. This one is a nice, new truck that meets all the standards, but it’s nothing special, and it cost $350,000.”