When Frenchboro resident Jay Desjardin went to the post office recently to pick up his mail, he found an envelope containing a check for $50,000 made out to the Town of Frenchboro by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. The grant money was awarded to the Frenchboro Fire Department to be used towards the purchase of a fire truck. Desjardin thought the envelope would contain a rejection letter in response to a plea for help for the island’s fire department. He was stunned when he saw the check. “I stood there and just shook. I thought ‘who ya’ gonna’ tell first’. I staggered out of the post office and up over the hill to tell our Island Institute fellow,” said Desjardin.
In January, a home belonging to a summer resident on Frenchboro burned to the ground on a cold winter night. At the time, the only fire truck on Frenchboro, a truck more than 30 years old, was out of service. Frenchboro Fire Chief Rebecca Lenfesty said, “We felt hopeless.” Residents were forced to watch and wait for firefighters and equipment to arrive from nearby Swan’s Island and the mainland fire department of Tremont.
When asked about her reaction to the $50,000 grant award, Fire Chief Lenfesty said, “I was surprised for sure. The $50,000 grant award is more money than the town raised at the annual town meeting in June.” At the annual town meeting, voters approved an operating budget of $23,000 for the fire department. The budget approved is to be used for turnout gear for fire fighters, to cover transportation and training costs, and pay for other operational expenses incurred by the department. Lenfesty and Island Institute Fellow Jessica Bellah have been working on reestablishing an active fire department on the island as part of Bellah’s fellowship.
Bellah, who works as an administrative assistant to the Frenchboro Board of Selectmen, said, “We are working on building capability by getting training, involvement and community support.” The loss of the summer home in January accelerated the efforts of Lenfesty and Bellah and helped to gain support from island residents and others who have come forward to offer help.
Frenchboro’s Fire Department has recently rejoined the Hancock County Firefighter’s Association and is working on building a network of support with mainland fire departments. “We wouldn’t be as far along as we are without the help of Tremont’s Fire Chief Wayne Patton,” said Lenfesty. Patton traveled to Frenchboro to facilitate training on fire safety and the operation of a brush truck donated to Frenchboro from the Oreland Fire Department a few months ago.
Chief Lenfesty is hopeful that the $50,000 grant will be used to get a truck as soon as possible. “We are looking for a standard pumper, 4-wheel drive, easy to operate, rural use truck – not a city truck,” she said.
Purchasing a used dependable truck, one that is right for Frenchboro’s unique needs, is top priority. Mutual aid firefighters from Swan’s Island and the mainland can arrive in less than a half hour by speeding lobsterboat in the event of a fire, but transportation of fire apparatus aboard the Maine State Ferry takes much longer. “Having a working truck on island is logistically the most important thing,” said Lenfesty. “We have a long road ahead of us as far as establishing a department, but we are making small steps in that direction and the $50,000 will go a long way toward meeting that goal. It’s really appreciated,” Lenfesty stated.
Donna Wiegle is a freelance writer living on Swan’s Island.