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The burning ambition of a 20-year-old fire chief Add to ...

Chelsea Kuzman works as a waitress. She slings 35-cent chicken wings on Wednesdays and serves $2.50 Lucky Lagers on Fridays.

If her pager goes off, at any hour on any day, she swaps her apron for a fireproof jacket. Ms. Kuzman is chief of the 12-person volunteer fire department at Port Renfrew at the western terminus of Highway 14 on Vancouver Island.

She is 20.

Not a 20-year veteran.

Twenty years old.

In an emergency, the 300 residents of Port Renfrew and the neighbouring Pacheedaht Reserve, as well as the visiting surfers, park-goers and motorists who frequent this spectacular stretch of coastline, rely on Ms. Kuzman and her crew to deliver prompt rescue.

Her territory, which stretches to such places as Lost Creek and Lizard Lake, includes isolated beaches that fleck the shore.

"We had one just the other night down at Sombrio," she said. "A 16-year-old boy ate a granola bar that had peanut butter in it. He had an allergic reaction. He could hardly feel his legs, so he couldn't walk."

After clambering over rocks slick with seaweed, the crew placed the youth in a clamshell stretcher to haul him back to the highway. He recovered.

Ms. Kuzman is the new chief of a volunteer department counting four men and eight women.

She is the youngest, having joined at the age of 16, a high-school "adrenalin junkie" attracted by the excitement of attending calls.

"I thought it looked like fun," she said. "I thought it was cool. So, I joined."

The first jacket she was issued came down to her knees. Ms. Kuzman stands just 5-foot-3. She is dwarfed by the massive pumper truck that is the department's pride. At first intimidated by the sheer bulk of the machine, she now adroitly manoeuvres the 330-horsepower vehicle.

The pumper was built by the Austrian-based fire-truck manufacturer Rosenbauer. The crew call it Rosie.

Happily, it was a quiet summer. "We've done more practice fires than real fires," she said.

The most serious incident involved an all-terrain vehicle that crashed on a logging road. The victim's buddies rushed the unconscious man to the fire hall.

"That one was critical. The ambulance was an hour away. We got him into a basket and got him out to the field."

A helicopter picked the man up from a nearby landing pad.

The chief has earned several certificates, which she recites like an undergrad enumerating completed prerequisites.

"I've done a Hydro course for power lines. I've done a flagging course. I've got my air brakes. Live fire. A pumps and pumping course to operate the pump on the truck. A Jaws-of-Life course. I've done my First Responder twice. I've got my CPR and AD [advanced defibrillator]endorsements, as well as my spinal endorsement."

The ascension of so young a woman to a chief's status has not been greeted with uniform respect by fellow firefighters. She attended a training session near Victoria in street clothes, earning derisive comments from full-time firefighters from wealthier districts, who wore matching department T-shirts.

Such snubs do not fluster her. When you live at the remote end of a washboard highway populated by more bears than people, you learn to be resourceful.

In winter, the road washes out, cutting off access to Victoria 110 kilometres to the east. Cellular telephone service remains a science-fiction fantasy.

So, when the chief's post became open, Ms. Kuzman stepped forward at an age when her peers might be more interested in dating a firefighter than in being one.

As chief, she receives an honorarium of about $2,000 for her efforts and she gets to wear five stripes on her formal uniform.

She offered a recent visitor a tour of a facility built to replace a decrepit fire hall that happens to be in a tsunami zone. The chief donned a bulky Securitx firefighter's jacket.

"Do I look huge in this?" she asked.

She is only 20.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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