It's a romantic image, that of ranchers leaving their fields and livestock or barbers, storekeepers and blacksmiths closing up shop to rush to the aid of a neighbor whose life or property is imperiled by fire.
Since Benjamin Franklin founded Philadelphia's Union Fire Company in 1736, volunteers have formed the backbone of U.S. firefighting forces and remain a critical part of Sonoma County's emergency response network, especially in rural communities.
But staffing the ranks of volunteers has grown increasingly daunting in an age of shifting demographics, long-distance commutes, ever-busier lives and training mandates that require the same instruction for volunteers that most paid firefighters get.
"There's just a significant need for volunteers nationwide, California-wide, Sonoma County-wide, Napa County-wide," said former Sonoma County Fire Chief Vern Losh. "I think it boils down to changing economics. People don't work where they necessarily live anymore. People can't just leave their jobs to go run to a fire or a medical aid."
The Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department has determined that 300 active volunteers would be necessary to ensure its 15 rural, all-volunteer departments provide the desired level of safety and service recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, county Fire Chief Mark Aston said.
One in five of those positions is unfilled. Rural and remote coastal communities distant from population centers are in the poorest shape, officials said.
Several hundred more volunteers fill out the ranks of 24 other city departments and community fire protection districts, many of which have turned to small paid staffs in the past decade or two to guarantee someone is on duty during weekday hours when most would-be volunteers are at work.
Most of those departments also have shorter volunteer rosters, officials said.
In the case of a medical emergency, when only a couple of folks need to respond, it's not a real problem, said Sean Grinnell, chief at Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, which has developed an internship program to help fill 24-hour volunteer shifts.
"Where we start running into trouble is if we have a cliff rescue, a vehicle accident, structure fire or wildland fire," he said. "Those are the types of things that you need bodies."
Most local departments have at least a small core of volunteers — a mix of old-timers and younger people for whom volunteer service may be a stepping stone to a paid firefighting career.
Countywide mutual aid agreements also guarantee backup response from neighboring departments, so someone always will come in an emergency, officials said.
But staffing at many departments is thin, especially in remote communities that serve primarily as bedroom communities or where ranches that once supported multiple generations no longer do.
In the meantime, safety mandates mean most volunteers must spend significant time getting their initial training — just like paid firefighters — before they're allowed on an engine. In addition, because of lower call volumes in rural departments, volunteers are required to attend weekly or bi-weekly training to remain proficient in addition to some weekend sessions.
The time requirements eliminate many potential volunteers.
In addition, "fire service" has expanded well beyond fire calls to include vehicle crashes, rescues, medical emergencies, hazardous conditions and all manner of catastrophes, meaning higher call volumes and more diverse training needs, they said. It's also become highly technical, Aston said.