ELSIE - The first car accident Mike Wammack saw after joining the Elsie-Vinemaple Rural Fire Protection Department nearly caused him to quit.

He was 14 years old, maybe 15, and asleep in his home next to U.S. Highway 26 after working a shift at the Elderberry Inn. It was late in the afternoon when something woke him up. He later realized that "something" was the sound of a head-on collision.

A car full of teenagers had attempted to pass another vehicle and had slammed into a Volvo. Two of the teens were dead on scene. Two others died at the hospital.

Wammack's knowledge of emergency medical care was limited to CPR. There was little he could do but comfort the 8-year-old boy who was also part of the crash. Wammack worked without thinking, but as the adrenaline started to wear off, he began to realize the full horror of the situation and questioned whether he could handle responding to accidents.

That's when the fire chief pulled him aside.

"That's the way life is," the chief said. "You can't save all of them, but you have to help the ones you can."

Since then, Wammack has tried to measure his service to the volunteer fire department by the lives and properties he's saved, instead of the memories where no one made it home.

"That's the motivation that keeps you driving even when the house is burned down or the person is deceased," he said. "The calls where someone calls you back and says 'You saved my life,' that's when you think God, that's why I'm here."

Wammack is now the chief of that fire department, and has just celebrated 20 years of volunteer service.

He and his 13 volunteers oversee 28 square miles of Clatsop County, although their actual coverage area is much larger. They have mutual-aid agreements with other fire districts and respond to emergencies on the back ends of other districts, where it's questionable who can reach the situation first.

Elsie-Vinemaple responds to about 130 calls a year. The vast majority are car accidents, but there are also medical calls, illegal burns and structure fires.

In addition to serving as chief since 1996 - he took the reins three months before the record-setting floods - Wammack does most of the maintenance on the department's four engines, three tenders (water trucks), two squads (vehicles that are the first on scene to any incident and carry foam, jaws of life and other emergency equipment) and one rescue rig (basically an ambulance). It's a good fit for a man who, by day, is a mechanic at Glacier Northwest's Cobb Rock plant, a rock quarry.

Wammack also spends time keeping up his certifications.

Shortly after the first serious accident, Wammack signed up for a first-responder class so he could better aid the victims. After assisting on another bad accident and feeling like he could still do more, Wammack became an EMT. That wasn't enough either.

"They needed IVs and a lot more than I could do as an EMT, so I became an intermediate," he said.

Wammack is also a firefighter 1, instructor 1, first aid and CPR instructor.

Outside of his daily job and his volunteer hours with the fire department, Wammack is enjoying his time as a new dad. His wife, Karen, gave birth to their son, Justin, in November.

"Last weekend I told the wife I would stay home all weekend, and of course, we got three calls and I was gone for most of it," he said.

But Wammack said his wife is understanding, even when a well-planned weekend goes astray.

"I've been doing this ever since she's known me," he said. "She knows what I'm doing and why I like to do it."

And sometimes, Wammack has to admit, he does it just because it can be fun.

One of the highlights of being a volunteer is going to elementary school field days to wet down slip and slides for the kids and show off a fire engine.

"I love the people who tell you what a great job you're doing," he said.

Especially when it's a soaked kid who just wants to hear the sirens.

- Leanne Josephson