NEWBURY, N.H. — New Hampshire volunteer firefighter Mike Croteau vividly recalls working round the clock to fight the fire on Mount Sunapee that devoured 1,700 acres in 1947.
He was 18 years old and a two-year veteran of the department. Today at 82 he remains an active firefighter — swinging himself into the 2,000-gallon tanker truck he drives to fires and the rescue truck he drives to medical emergencies.
Croteau, of Newbury, was stunned to receive a commendation this month from Gov. John Lynch on his 67 years of service as a firefighter. He thought he was attending a meeting to lobby for federal funds.
"We’re pretty good liars," joked Newbury Fire Chief Hank Thomas Jr., who himself has been with the department for 40 years. Croteau says he never noticed a half dozen of his colleagues on the 29-member fire department seated in the back row when he attended the meeting.
Croteau actually began his fire service informally at age 14, helping to fight brush fires caused by sparks from the trains that used to run from Boston to Newbury Station. Croteau grew up on the town’s main thoroughfare and his house bordered the tracks, and his father, George, was a longtime member and chief of the Newbury Fire Department.
"When the trains came through shooting smoke and sparks, they set off fires right and left," said Croteau.
But the fire on Mount Sunapee remains the biggest blaze he’s ever fought. It was sparked by a lightning strike after a prolonged autumn drought and ignited an abundance of dry timber and slash left from the hurricane of 1938.
Croteau said he and hundreds of other firefighters battled the fast-moving fire with tanks of water on their backs and rakes and shovels to corral the debris.
"We worked for seven days, night and day," Croteau said. "You would get off one party, have a meal, and go back for another three or four hours. I was in high school, so this was a real diversion."
New Hampshire State Fire Marshal Bill Degnan said the only firefighter he knows of who rivals Croteau’s tenure is the late Tom Monaghan of the Newfields fire department, who served for 70 years, though the last seven were as honorary chief and not an active member.
Degnan said Croteau deserves to be commended.
"Fire service is a calling," Degnan said. "It’s people who care about people who are doing these jobs."
Lynch called Croteau "the standard bearer of a career in public service."
Ken Burnell, captain of training for the Newbury Fire and Rescue Department and a member for 31 years, called Croteau incredible.
"He’s down here all the time," Burnell said. "He’s totally dedicated. If you want to know anything, you just ask Mike."
Croteau said that aside from a little arthritis in his knees, his health is great.
"As long as you have your health, you’re way ahead of the game," said Croteau, who retired from the state Department of Transportation in 1990 after 33 years as an assistant engineer.
He said it’s the excitement of the job that keeps him going.
"You never know what the call is," said Croteau. "They may say one thing, and when you get to the scene it’s not necessarily true."
Croteau’s only lament is that he can’t persuade his son and two daughters to join the fire service. But he has no plans to retire, and the Croteau name will remain on the Newbury Fire Department roster as it has for nearly a century.
"As long as my health holds together, I’ll be here," Croteau said. "Somebody has to shovel the snow from in front of the door in winter."