In sync, eight children, carrying two fire hoses, stride in unison toward flames shooting up from a metal structure fed by propane.
The fire they doused was intentionally lit and the firefighters were kids ages 10-14, participating this week in the Novato Fire Protection District’s annual Fire Squirts Camp.
This is the 13th year the weeklong camp at station 62 has paired Marin County youth, many of them at-risk, with firefighters and other public safety officials, in an effort to teach teamwork, self-confidence and discipline.
This year’s 24 participating kids are learning about the fire district’s day-to-day operations and about what they are capable of by extinguishing fires as a team, cutting open a vehicle with the Jaws of Life, repelling off a four-story building, and more.
“When they come in here, they don’t have much of an idea of what they’re going to learn,” said Sandy Wargo, public information officer with the fire district and a camp organizer. “By the end of the week, I feel they’re walking away with skills they never dreamed they would be able to obtain.”
The fire district works to attract at-risk children — from foster care and other unique backgrounds — to the camp, which is free for all participants. They come from Marin Advocates for Children, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Novato Youth Center and the city of Novato’s parks and recreation department. Additional slots are open to district firefighters’ children — if they volunteer their time at the camp, Wargo said.
In its short history, the camp has been modified as it has garnered support from the community. Participants once wore leftover firefighter gear, hemmed to fit properly.
“We used to use old leftover firefighter turnouts that were too big and cumbersome,” Wargo said. “It was a safety hazard — pants were dragging, and boots were too big.”
But through fundraising efforts from the Novato Fire Foundation, new fire-resistant gear for children were purchased. Public safety workers also now donate their time to work hands-on with the children and teach them what their jobs entail. Campers are fed free lunches all week, which are donated by businesses from throughout the community, including Round Table Pizza, Novato’s Taqueria Real and Jennie Low’s.
Anthony Bargiacchi, a Novato fire district engineer and camp organizer, said the program has grown with generosity.
“This is the community, and that’s how this is possible,” he said.
Megan Boals, 13, got involved with the camp through her father, who works for the fire district.
The Fairfield resident has learned how to extinguish a fire, has made new friends, and figured out how to put her trust in others. She’s learned a few other things as well.
“It’s definitely not a good idea to play with fires,” Boals said. “I never have and never really wanted to, but they tell us what happens and why — so it’s fun. I like it here. It’s really fun.”