Deputy Fire Chief Gary Saunders is retiring in August after 25 years with the Ellsworth Fire Department. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY ANNE BERLEANT

After 25 years and many roles, Saunders to retire from Ellsworth Fire Department

ELLSWORTH — A quarter-century ago when Gary Saunders joined the Ellsworth Fire Department, firefighters mostly fought fires, with two full-time firefighters and about 40 volunteers. Much has changed.

“The volunteerism rate is not good,” Saunders said, sitting at a metal picnic table outside the fire department garage doors. And at the same time, career firefighters do not always stick around. “It used to be when you get in, it’s a 25-year thing,” he said. “Now, we have people who use it as a steppingstone to bigger departments.”

That is fine with Saunders, though. He can trace back the career of, say, Washington D.C. firefighter Henry Sullivan to when he was an EFD intern from Blue Hill at age 16, and other “guys who you knew you could never hold to a small-town department.”

Not everyone can run into a burning building or assist at the scene of a severe injury or death car crash. And now, with Ellsworth also providing emergency medical services, those credentials are desired along with firefighting skills. “It’s hard to get good people,” Saunders said. “There’s an entitlement out there…It gets more difficult every year, and it’s not an easy job to do.”

He quickly added, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great career. I’ve done things I’ve never imagined I would do because of the fire service.”

Take Jay Leno. Or, rather, Jay Leno’s antique fire truck sitting in his Burbank, California garage. It needed repairs, and Saunders’ good friend was called upon. He brought Saunders along for his know-how, and Saunders was able to bring his 18-year-old son. The fire truck was fixed, all three were special guests attending The Tonight Show, and Saunders’ son got to drive Leno’s decked-out Corvette on the California freeway.

“Things like that I would never be able to do if it wasn’t for the fire department,” Saunders said.

Firefighters need to take their fun when it’s offered because their work mainly deals with life, property, injuries, and potential and actual death. “Firefighting is probably a small portion of what we do,” Saunders said. “There’s a lot of car fires, a lot of car accidents.”

Just a few years after Saunders joined the department full time, fire departments and being a firefighter changed, Saunders said.

“Up until 9/11, the doors were always open, and the community was welcome to come in,” he recalled. “After 9/11, that all stopped. The door closed. It was just a sad time around here.”

The larger picture had Maine Emergency Management Agency request the EFD to put together a hazard materials/weapons of mass destruction regional response team. And Saunders and other firefighters had to undergo training to test for the nerve agent sarin. “They stuck us in a room with a thousand lethal doses of BX nerve agent,” Saunders recalled. “It was a little unnerving.”

What Saunders is most passionate about is providing help when it is most needed. When you extricate someone from a vehicle, you know you’ve made a difference that day, he said. But “it’s hard to be happy” after a fire because someone’s home is damaged or destroyed.

Saunders knows this firsthand, after a fire started in his garage in 1998. “Everything you think you know goes right out the window,” he said. “It’s a terrible feeling, just a total feeling of despair.”

That garage fire also brought his wife Karen into the department as an on-call firefighter. “Many times, I’d be pumping the truck and my wife would be in the burning building,” he said. “She was quite a badass. She is a badass… [And] quite the trailblazer for women in the fire service.”

He added, “Years ago, firefighting was a family thing. The whole family joined the department. The Tuppers. The Fortiers. We’ve kind of gotten away from that.”

It was Saunders’ older brother, who volunteered for the Ellsworth department, who sparked Saunders’ career. He would hear the tone go off in his brother’s room and race to get to the car first. After college, he spent a few years with Maine Shellfish and then with Dead River before becoming first an on-call firefighter and then joining full time.

“The first time you go into a burning building, you either come out high fiving the other firefighters or you come out, take your mask off and walk away,” he said. “I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen that happen after a traumatic car accident.”

Saunders retires as deputy chief, after serving a stint as interim fire chief, and 20 years in charge of fire prevention and education. He also trained up-and-coming firefighters at the Hancock County Fire Academy and was the public information officer for the department.

“One of the other things that has been a joy, outside of working with a dedicated team, is working with the media,” he said.

While Saunders is retiring from firefighting, he is not retiring from work. He runs a vinyl lettering business — his work is everywhere in Ellsworth and beyond — and his love of antique fire trucks keeps him in his garage in his free time.

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]
Anne Berleant

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