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Volunteer fire crews in shambles after Ike

The peninsula's volunteer fire departments are in shambles since Ike roared ashore. Fire stations in Port Bolivar, Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, inundated by floodwater, aren't usable.

PORT BOLIVAR - If one of the nine houses still standing in Gilchrist catches fire, Rick Rosenthal won't be there to extinguish the blaze. Rosenthal, the longest-serving member of the Gilchrist Volunteer Fire Department, lost his home, his business and his fire station when Hurricane Ike's tidal surge almost wiped Gilchrist off the map. "I'm through," he said, on the phone from a home he's staying at in Winnie. "After 27 years in the firefighting business, there's a time to say 'enough is enough.'" Peninsula residents have always taken care of their own emergencies; Hurricane Ike changed that. Washed away The peninsula's volunteer fire departments are in shambles since Ike roared ashore. Fire stations in Port Bolivar, Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, inundated by floodwater, aren't usable. Fire trucks and medical supplies, so carefully stockpiled through years on limited budgets, were destroyed. Volunteer firefighters, many who no longer have homes to live in, are scattered everywhere. "You thought it was thin before," said Charlie Bouse, chief of the Port Bolivar Volunteer Fire Department, referring to his small crew. Emergency response was sketchy before Hurricane Ike slammed into the peninsula. A small group of volunteer firefighters, most who worked away the peninsula during the day, scrambled to put out fires and answer 911 calls when they were home. Now, homeless and under pressure to return to jobs where they can earn paychecks, many of the peninsula's volunteer firefighters can no longer respond to emergencies. Homeless David Loop, the chief of Crystal Beach Volunteer Fire Department, lost his home and his fire station in the hurricane. He's been spending nights sleeping in his truck in Winnie and days combing through piles of debris for dead neighbors and pets. So far, Loop said he's not uncovered anyone who perished in the storm. He prays it stays that way. In the initial days after Ike came ashore, Loop could only reach his hometown by airboat. Three or four days passed by before he got the chance to visit his home - only a concrete slab remained. He hasn't seen his wife or children since they evacuated before the hurricane. All of the volunteers on his crew are homeless. They evacuated ambulances, but the storm surge arrived earlier than they planned, forcing them to abandon equipment and paperwork they had planned to take with them. Long hours Since Ike, Loop and his crew has been working 16-hour days, he said. When he's not sifting through debris piles with game wardens, Loop is responding to the fires and EMS calls. When the county allowed residents home for the first time on Friday, Loop and 24 other firefighters from other agencies spent seven hours extinguishing a blaze that engulfed three homes. Bouse has spent the past two weeks on the peninsula, bringing residents water, rescuing cattle, cats and dogs and extinguishing house fires. Since the county allowed residents home, Bouse has been responding without a fire station to return to. Bouse and his volunteer crew have been spending nights on an energy company's barge anchored on Goat Island, on the bay side of Crystal Beach. Bouse's fire station, equipment and medical supplies washed away in the tidal surge. There's no fresh water to extinguish fires. Bouse and other firefighters drew saltwater from the bay to snuff out the house fires Friday, even though Bouse knows the salt is rusting the inside of the truck. "We're getting things done a little bit here and there," he said. "We're a little skeleton crew, but we're getting things done we need to do, or at least trying to." Bouse reluctantly returned to work at his paying job Monday. He hated to go, but he had no choice, he said. Not coming back Rosenthal, president of the now-defunct Gilchrist Volunteer Fire Department, said he doesn't know if any of the volunteers are back on the peninsula. A few of them vowed to rebuild. Rosenthal refuses to, he said. There's nothing left for him in Gilchrist. "The total number of homes still standing - and I don't' even know if they're still habitable - is nine. Nine homes," Rosenthal said. "There's no way you can keep a volunteer fire department going on that. You just don't have the support. You just can't do it."