Assistant Fire Chief Mike Mickelson of the Wilmar volunteer Fire Department can still remember his first job with the department.

"When I was a kid and the department got a call, it was my job to open the garage doors for the fire trucks to go out," Mickelson said as he pointed to a photo hanging on the station wall of a thin, blond boy in a t-shirt and jeans flinging open garage doors with his brothers. "That's me. I can still remember getting calls and racing outside to open the huge doors."

That's because Mickelson's father, Bob, not only became the first chief of the volunteer unit, but he also housed the trucks on his property.

Today, Mike Mickelson's 28-year-old son also volunteers with the unit, making it a three-generation, family tradition.

That's how it is at the plucky 46-year-old unit that handles more calls than any of the other 14 Sonoma County volunteer fire departments — a "family" affair.

"We're a tight-knit crew even though most of us have other jobs," said Mickelson. "And our community as a whole is great. We get lots of behind-the-scenes support and we're real fortunate for that."

The all-volunteer Wilmar Fire Department provides emergency services to the rural and unincorporated stretch of land west of Petaluma out to Two Rock. It covers more than 14 square miles and 1,100 parcels of suburban, rural and agricultural land. Each year, the 45-person volunteer unit responds to more than 300 emergency incidents, most of which Chief Mark Heine says are medical.

"It requires us to have a very fast response time," Heine said. "Last year, our average response time was between seven to eight minutes. You can imagine how important that is when someone's health is in danger."

Heine said just nine months ago, a man suffered a heart attack on Bodega Avenue. His volunteers made it on the scene in just two minutes. "They were able to resuscitate him and transport him to the hospital where he survived," Heine said. "When time is of the essence, that's when it's great to have a volunteer unit close by."

Heine pointed out that Petaluma's city department is located downtown and could have taken much longer to reach the heart attack patient. "Sometimes it can take 20 minutes to get across the city," he said, adding that if the volunteer department didn't exist, the downtown Petaluma station would be the only emergency service provider for the 4,000 people living in the rural, unincorporated area west of town.

Heine himself started his career as a volunteer firefighter working out of Marin County. He also serves as a division chief with the Novato Fire Department. When the chief's position at Wilmar became available, Heine saw it as an opportunity to return to his roots and "give something back to an operation that gave me such a great opportunity when I was young."

For young people seeking to become professional firefighters, Heine says volunteering can be a great way to get some experience while going through school or waiting for a paid position to become available.

"About 80 percent of our volunteers are either fulltime firefighters or they are attending school to become a firefighter," said Heine. "Many young folks are trying to get experience for a career, so this is a great place for them. And it also serves a need in the community."

Assistant Chief Mickelson, who works for CalFire as a battalion chief, said that the remaining 20 percent of their volunteer staff are citizens who care about their community — something he sees as a reflection of rural values.

"It's a huge commitment to get started as a volunteer firefighter, especially if you have no training to begin with," Mickelson said. "It can take up to a year to get trained, but people do it because they take pride in their community. It's really amazing."

Wilmar's volunteer crew is equipped with four fire engines — a structure fire engine, a wildland fire engine, a tanker truck for transporting water and a smaller support services engine — each of which costs roughly $200,000 and was paid for through grants. The county of Sonoma pays for the firefighter's gear — which costs about $2,000 per person — along with insurance and pagers.

Wilmar has an annual operating budget of approximately $90,000. Almost $80,000 comes from a district tax. The rest comes from donations and fundraising events. Ever since 1966, the department has hosted an annual barbecue and raffle. The event, which happened on Sunday, typically raises more than $10,000.

"Our budget pays for fuel costs, training volunteers, our property lease and emergency equipment," said Heine.

None of Wilmar's volunteer staff is paid, something former board member Pat McLaughlin said is very rare in this day and age.

"We're really fortunate to have this place, especially because it's all volunteer,"said McLaughlin.

The firefighters who live close enough to reach the station within several minutes of a call are allowed to remain "on-call" from home, while those who live farther away are asked to work a few eight-hour shifts at the station throughout the week. While they're at the station they can work on several computers — which comes in handy for the students among them — relax in the video game/television room, or catch up on their rest in the two-bed sleeping quarters.

Heine pointed out that just because they're volunteer doesn't mean they're any less qualified.

"Each firefighter, working or completely civilian, gets the exact same training as all paid firefighters," added Heine. "We are here to support our full-time fire departments and we have the same ownership over our community."

Wilmar also participates in a youth education program for teens 15 to 18 years of age. This helps the unit maintain a steady stream of new talent.

"The Explorer Program helps kids learn about the fire service and keeps interest high," said Mickelson. "It gives us a pool of future help to choose from."

For more information, or to make a donation, visit www.wilmarfire.com.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)