FORT MILL -- Bruce Byrnes is a computer consultant. He does not make his living fighting fires like the nine firefighters in Charleston who died a year ago in the worst loss of firefighter life since Sept. 11, 2001. A sign in front of the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Department main station, on busy U.S. 21, asks people driving by to remember the nine men.
But we also need to remember those who remain, right here among us, in the big shiny stations and the small stations that are converted garages. They fight the fires right here in York and Chester counties -- today and always.
Byrnes, the computer guy, is one of them. For 29 years, he has been a volunteer firefighter. He has left a thousand meals and missed holidays, birthdays and more.
His grown son also is a volunteer at the Flint Hill Fire Department, which covers a sprawling, growing area with thousands of homes and businesses, such as those huge buildings near the state line.
Let me tell you the difference between a few feet: On Carowinds Boulevard, in North Carolina, men from a paid department race to fight fires. On the York County side, men race from home, work or even from PTA meetings.
In booming Fort Mill -- the town and outside the town -- the confidence of safety inside bedrooms and boardrooms comes because computer consultants and plumbers, judges and brick masons give up their free time. The chief in Fort Mill quit a banking executive's job to be a fire chief. Why?
For me, and you.
"I guess it's the way I can give back," said Byrnes, speaking for all.
Ricky Wilson makes his living with the York County Fire Marshal's Office. He inspects buildings, investigates fires and works on safety. For 30 years, he has been a volunteer firefighter.
Wilson, chief at tiny Smyrna Volunteer Fire Department in far western York County, does the same thing in a rural area that Byrnes does in the populous Flint Hill district.
He gives up nights for training, afternoons, nights and weekends in summer heat to fight fires whenever he is needed -- which, for him and his volunteers, is always.
"Family outings, vacations, if there's a fire, you just miss it," Wilson said. "Can't walk off and say, 'Nobody will be here this weekend.' Somebody might need us."
That somebody is all of us -- a population in York County pushing a quarter of a million, most of whom are served by volunteers. There are plenty of paid firefighters, too, most in Rock Hill, a few in Fort Mill and York and Flint Hill.
The assistant chief at Smyrna, Charles Mitchell, straps on the helmet in Rock Hill for 24-hour shifts, like the firefighters who helped save kids from a burning home on Rock Hill's Main Street two weeks ago.
There were no funerals that next day, in part because the firefighters were courageous. Up the stairs, punching death in the mouth.
Volunteer firefighters train and sell barbecue and hash and fry fish to raise money for their equipment. The more equipment, the better the training, the more water sources found to fight fires, the cheaper everybody's homeowner's insurance is.
Bethesda VFD residents just saved about $100 a year. Newport and Bethel VFD residents will see that savings soon. Guys such as Ricky Wilson have done it way out in Bullocks Creek to try to save somebody a few bucks.
Or a life.
"We just like helping people," Wilson said. "A firefighter has to like that, or he won't ever make it."
There are more than 600 firefighters in this county, in 18 departments. Men and women.
How many of them saved strangers in the past year since the nine firefighters died in Charleston?
The next time that you drop a dollar in a bucket or write a check for a charity, think about those who show they care by heading into the smoke and the flames?