Neighbors helping Neighbors: Shelton’s White Hills Fire Co. celebrating 75 years of aiding the community

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — The motto says it all.

“Neighbors Helping Neighbors” is something that generations of volunteers with White Hills Fire Co. No. 5 have embraced. And 75 years after its founding, the concept still rings true.

“We’re a family,” said Tim Manion, longtime volunteer firefighter and past White Hills captain who is also serving as chair of the company’s 75th anniversary committee. “We’re here to help our neighbors. But there is such a strong camaraderie among the members here and their families.”

Manion said some families have had three and eve four generations of firefighters at White Hills.

“It is a sacrifice; our families are the ones who pay the price when we must leave to answer a call,” he said.

Formed on May 20, 1946, the volunteers have been aiding the local citizenry ever since — from battling house fires, responding to accidents or alarms to raising money or collecting toys for charities to playing host to Santa Claus’ annual tour of White Hills to toss popcorn balls to onlookers.

The department will hold its 75th anniversary celebration dinner on Sept. 24 at Whitney Farms Golf Course. The dinner is open to the public, and tickets are available on the department’s website.

“Once you were in, you were hooked,” said past White Hill Captain Tony DiSarli. “We have volunteers here that are second, third, fourth generation firefighters.”

“My parents have pictures of me sitting on Santa’s lap here. I have pics of my kids doing the same,” said longtime volunteer firefighter and past Capt. Charlie Ovesny III. “We have incredible memories of our times together here, as kids and now as adults.”

Longtime volunteer firefighter Mike Kellett said there are grandmothers with their grandchildren at company events that were once the children here themselves.

“Throwing popcorn balls to the kids, that’s one of my fondest memories,” added Ken Baldyga, who like his fellow firefighters, has dedicated years to serving the people in White Hills and the rest of the city.

Shelton has four fire companies which have battled many significant fires over the years, most notably the firebombing at the B.F. Goodrich factory downtown in 1975, which the FBI deemed the largest arson case in the nation at the time.

Other fires included the Shelton Boys Club blaze and numerous fires along Canal Street — most recently the fire that gutted the former Star Pin building, which sent a plume of smoke into the sky that was visible for miles.

But even with the dangers, these volunteers say they have no fear of walking into a burning home if it is in the interest of protecting their neighbors.

“Firefighting is dangerous, but we have had all the training - hours and hours of training,” said Fran Wheeler, a volunteer firefighter for six decades, first with Echo Hose, then White Hills. “We are doing this to save lives. That is what I have dedicated my life to, what my family has dedicated their lives to.”

The White Hills Civic Club was chartered May 20, 1946, and a stated aim of the organization was to promote community welfare in this section of the community that housed some 50 families at the time.

One of the first objectives was to form a volunteer fire company and purchase a fire truck. Within a year, the fire company was founded, and the first fire truck was purchased in 1948 at a cost of $7,000.

Members at that time signed personal notes to assure payment of the new vehicle and they held a two-day country fair to help pay off the new fire truck. The Civic Club donated $1,000 toward the construction of a cinderblock addition to their building to house the new truck.

The truck was originally stored in a barn in White Hills in the summer and at the Monroe firehouse during the winter until the addition was completed. In 1951, the fire company fought its first major fire at Novotny’s barn a few years later.

Today, White Hills Co. No. 5 is chartered to have up to 75 members but there are only 35 active members — with the department constantly on the search for new recruits.

The need is there, Manion says, with the call volume at about 250 annually in the mid-1980s to more than 400 projected for this year.

Manion said that in the 1980s, there were 350 volunteer firefighters citywide protecting some 35,000 residents — making one out of every 100 people was a volunteer.

Now, the city has 42,000 people and 260 volunteers, and Manion said that population number jumps to nearly 90,000 during the day as the city has become an employment hub in the region.

“This weighs on all the companies,” Kellett said. “We are always looking for volunteers.”

The volunteers respond to calls including structure fires, commercial fire alarms, brush fires, medical assists, and motor vehicle accidents and extrication.

In addition to providing citywide coverage all hours of the day, 365 days a year, Company 5 has responded to mutual aid calls in Monroe, Derby, Trumbull, Stratford, and other towns. They are also part of the countywide Strike Force unit and most recently responded to help fight fires as far away as Brookfield and Bethel.

Other annual events run by Company 5 include a boot drive, pancake breakfast, holiday tree lighting, Santa visits, and fire safety education events.

All these fundraisers help the company purchase specialized vehicles and equipment, thermal imagers, extrication tools, CO and gas meters and many other necessary pieces of equipment and tools.

“We are all here for each other and the people of Shelton,” said Ovesny.

He says he remembers how his extended family came to his grandfather’s aid when his home caught fire on his birthday years back.

“Insurance would not cover replacing the deck, so the firehouse did the work,” he said. “They paid for materials and rebuilt the deck. That’s what we do here. We have fundraisers to buy items for the company, but we have food drives, toy drives, pancake breakfasts, flower sales. And we raise money for those in need in the community.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com