“I was helping put it out until the fire department got there,” Clark recalled. “I just got to talking to those guys and they said, ‘Why don’t you be a volunteer?’ ”
Forty years and three departments later, the 65-year-old Sonora resident still feels an adrenaline rush when his pager goes off.
Clark is on-call with the Tuolumne County Fire Department’s Mono Vista station 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
He has been a volunteer firefighter in Tuolumne County since January 1981, after volunteering for a year in Alameda County and eight years in Solano County.
Clark has responded to some of the Mother Lode’s most memorable blazes of the last quarter-century, including the Dodge Ridge and Long Barn lodge fires and the Stanislaus Complex wildfire.
“I generally drive the water tender and I can remember that one up at Dodge Ridge … we shuttled water back and forth all day,” he said.
The January 2005 fire destroyed the 10,000-square-foot historic lodge — a $1 million loss, fire officials estimated at the time.
When lightning struck the Mother Lode numerous times in August 1987, Clark was dispatched to what would become the largest fire in Tuolumne County history. The devastating Stanislaus Complex Fire burned 147,000 acres.
The blaze also scorched phone lines in its path, creating chaos for area phone companies. Clark was working full-time as a cable splicer for AT&T at the time and traded in the firehose for wire cutters.
“There were so many burned up phone lines,” he said. “I was still out there on the fire lines, so to speak, but repairing phone lines.”
Clark considered leaving his job at AT&T for a full-time firefighting career while living in Solano County.
“I thought, yes, it’s fun to go out and fight the big fire, but if you’re not fighting the big fire, you’re sitting around the station,” he said.
Getting to be “out and about” for the phone company and fighting fires during his spare time was “the best of both worlds,” he said.
Clark was able to continue both jobs when he moved to Sonora in 1981. He wanted to transfer either to Jackson, where he owned a piece of land, or Sonora because of the “appeal of living in the mountains.”
He moved to the Central Sierra with his wife of nearly 40 years, Sally, and three sons, Wyatt, Doug and Donald.
Clark retired from AT&T about 10 years ago after a 32-year career.
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “I’d probably still be doing it except they made me a good offer to retire so it didn’t make sense to keep working.”
When he’s not fighting fires, Clark spends his retirement working as an on-call substitute bus driver for Summerville High School, playing softball with a senior league, doing water aerobics, tending to his 3-acre yard — which has been featured in home and garden tours — and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
A charter member of Jamestown Harley Owners Group, Clark rides around the Mother Lode and over the Sierra Nevada with other local bikers.
One of their more adventurous trips was from the Sierra foothills to Arizona and Utah, where they stopped at renowned sites including the Grand Canyon.
He said he’s owned a Harley since 1969.
“It’s just fun,” he said. “The wind in your face … nowadays it’s cheaper than putting gas into a truck,” he said.
Clark didn’t express any immediate plans to turn in his fire pager and said it’s disappointing when he can’t respond to an exciting call.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Barry Rudolph said Clark is a dedicated volunteer who responds to many fires at all hours of the day, usually with a water tender.
“Without guys like Doug, we wouldn’t have water at the scene in rural areas and without water, firefighting is pretty tough,” Rudolph said.
Clark said fire departments rely heavily on volunteers because they can’t afford to staff every station with full-time paid firefighters.
He said it is especially worrisome in the winter when Cal Fire shuts down many of its stations until the start of fire season.
Clark said volunteers are given a stipend to cover travel and uniform expenses and are paid as private hire by Cal Fire when they spend more than two hours at a fire. But “nobody does it for the money,” he said.
“We really support guys like Doug and thank them for their service,” Rudolph said. “We want to make sure the community recognizes the sacrifice they make.”