In the summer and early fall of 1987, Blaine Saarie was a car enthusiast and an entrepreneur, a brand-new business owner in the Freeman community and the man in charge of Saarie Auto Body.
What the 23-year-old was not was a firefighter — and certainly no fire chief. In fact, he hadn’t even given joining the force a second thought, let alone a first.
That’s hard to believe now, considering what Saarie has done for the Freeman Volunteer Fire Department for the better part of the past three decades, acting as the chief in charge and leading the force through a host of changes for the better. On Tuesday evening, Jan. 26, Saarie stepped aside to allow a younger chief to step in.
He calls it “passing the hat.”
Things were much different back in 1987.
Saarie was there when it happened, front and center at a bad show, when the fire ignited and quickly spread. His adrenaline shoved aside any good reason to get out of there. Instead, common sense told him to stay put. Fight the fire however he could. Save his new shop.
Imagine what the business owner, 23 years young at the time, thought after seeing the spark from the cutting torch ignite the gasoline tank he and others were removing from a vehicle inside Saarie Auto Body — just four months old — and quickly race across the gasoline’s path and into the flammable walls. Is it any wonder that Saarie scrambled to save his business, staying inside the burning building longer than he should have, trying to extinguish the escalating fire he had no business trying to extinguish, using a garden hose to try and do the work a full firefighting team wouldn’t be able to do?
He knows better now. He knew better then, too, but he couldn’t help himself. Could you?
Saarie eventually left the growing inferno. In fact, he’s lucky to have escaped. He said later that, as he was reluctantly coming out of the burning building after hearing the people yelling at him to get out of there, he heard a loud boom.
“Something blew,” he told the Courier after the fire. “Probably another gas tank.”
Impact of fire, Part 1
The fire that destroyed Saarie Auto Body in the late-afternoon, early-evening hours of Oct. 20, 1987 was a defining moment for the young Freeman business owner in more ways than one. So devastating was the loss that it had the power to do in Saarie and his business aspirations altogether. All he had ever wanted was to own his own body shop.
“What I wanted to do all my life is burning up,” Saarie said on that unforgettable fall evening almost 30 years ago, as he grimly watched firefighters try to contain the flames that would ultimately turn his building into a 100 percent loss.
Saarie was underinsured; he had borrowed $26,000 to start the business and had insured the building for that very amount — nothing more. “Young and dumb,” he says.
While insurance did cover the loss of the three vehicles inside the shop that fell victim to the fire, other casualties saw no silver lining — not the records and documents that were lost and certainly not the tools that melted away, some of them Saarie had owned since he was a child.
Yet Saarie vowed to rebuild, thanks largely to the vast encouragement he received from the business community, a kind and supportive banker at what was then First National Bank and the generosity of Tote, Inc., a trucking company then located on Juniper Street that offered Saarie the use of its space as he began putting together the pieces of a rebuild.
“The support of Freeman was unbelievable,” Saarie says today. “That is why I rebuilt — because of the support of the community. It certainly wasn’t that I had the money.”
Saarie Auto Body reopened in a brand-new building on the same location in 1989 and he began building his business back up — with much success. The auto body shop grew and evolved in the years and decades to come without anything close to the major setback Saarie had faced in 1987. Car sales and car parts were added to the line of services, and then, later, discontinued. Today, Saarie Auto Body remains a vital part of the Freeman business community and a fixture along the North County Road.
A framed reprint of the Courier’s coverage of the 1987 fire hangs on the wall of the lobby.
Impact of fire, Part 2
That Saarie rebuilt and refined his business in the years and decades after the fire is a sweet ultimate outcome born from a bad situation. But the fire resulted in a second defining moment for Saarie that ended up being almost as important as his decision to rebuild Saarie Auto Body.
The fire that destroyed his business led to his decision to become a firefighter.
“Without a doubt, 100 percent,” Saarie said in an interview with the Courier last week — eight days before he would step down as chief. “Before the fire, I hadn’t even given that a thought.”
Saarie remembers telling then-chief Orville Huber that he wanted to join the force because of the efforts he saw from the firefighters that October evening of 1987 — how they left their jobs and their homes, how they used their energy and their equipment to battle a hot fire, how they managed to bring it under control and, ultimately, save a few things from the inferno.
Yes, it was a disaster, “but without them, I would have lost more,” Saarie says.
Saarie joined the force in 1991, eventually became an assistant chief and took over as the man in charge of the department in 1997.
He remembers his very first call as a firefighter — a “horrific accident” that included multiple fatalities.
“Without a doubt, that was a test,” Saarie says. “But everything went as well as could be expected. The fire department did a great job. The ambulance crew did a great job, as always. But it was a very hard situation. I remember talking to the people who were on the scene. I felt like I had a purpose.”
The instinct to want to do good for people in trying times is a powerful force and something that was quickly embraced by Saarie.
“We want to help people — that’s why I stayed on as long as I did,” he says. “I want to help because I got help when I needed it.”
Being a fire chief
The ways in which Saarie has made an impact as chief are many. It is impossible to come up with a detailed and comprehensive list. But here are a few.
One of the first things Saarie did as chief was introduce pagers. The Orville Huber era was marked by a phone system that alerted first-responders to calls coming in. The home phone home would ring, the siren would sound and the department would head to the fire station, where the location of the fire would be written on a chalk board, and off they went.
In the early 1990s, the pages were a game-changer and dovetailed with the 911 dispatch setup, also relatively new at the time. Each firefighter and EMT would carry one, with information about the fire coming directly to them from dispatch. Saarie remembers the system being costly and some questioning the expense, but he believed the money the department had on hand should be spent for improvements, and the pager system certainly was that.
The Saarie era also included the biggest project ever taken on by the local fire department: the push for a new fire hall in the early part of the 2000s and its construction and opening on the north end of Main Street in September of 2003. Saarie talks about it with an equal sense of pride and exasperation. The project was complicated and comprehensive because of all the work that had to be done, from getting the Freeman City Council on board with the project to raising enough funds to make it a go.
The new fire and ambulance station replaced the crammed quarters on the south side of City Hall and was built for just over $310,000 — more than half of which was raised by firefighters and EMTs. That fundraising, coupled with several years-worth of meetings and discussions with city officials, was taxing.
“You can imagine how long it took,” Saarie says. “There were many visits to the council as a group to demonstrate our support. They saw how enthusiastic we were. We were out of room. We needed to move on it.”
The project saw a huge boost thanks to a $124,000 state grant awarded by Bill Janklow, South Dakota’s governor at the time. Saarie says he wrote a letter to the governor himself — “bad penmanship” and all. And he remembers getting a call from Janklow’s office three months later.
“The lady on the other end of the phone said, ‘Governor Janklow wants to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’ll hold.’
“It was him, as free-spirited as ever,” Saarie continues. “One of the first things I said was, ‘Could you read it?’”
Saarie also remembers the terms of the deal; that Janklow wanted, in exchange for the state grant, a sugar-free peach pie.
“I said, ‘For that kind of money, you want two?’ That was a highlight.”
There have been others. After so many years, how could there not be?
And there is a perspective on what makes a good fire chief. How could there not be after so many calls?
And there is a vision for the future. How can there not be with a new chief coming on board? The Courier will cover all of that when this story concludes next week.
We would like to thank freemansd.com for reprint permission.