Norma McDonnell spent years putting out fires

Norma McDonnell, with husband Fred, holds a plaque that was awarded to her by the California Department of Forestry for 20 years of dedicated service.
Norma McDonnell, with husband Fred, holds a plaque that was awarded to her by the California Department of Forestry for 20 years of dedicated service.
Norma McDonnell spent years putting out fires


Daniela Vasquez

Staff writer



MANTI—There was a time when Norma McDonnell of Manti would have been the person to call for help if any structure or forest fires broke out in the state of California.

McDonnell fought fires and dispatched firefighters for 20 years in the Golden State before she moved to Utah in 2005. She was even awarded a gold plated plaque from the California Department of Forestry (CDF) for the many years spent dedicated to the department.

In 1973, McDonnell said her oldest daughter, Lorna, was a firefighter and it encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone and also give firefighting a shot.

“I figured if my daughter could do it, so could I,” she said.

By the end of 1973, she earned her firemen’s training, received her EMT license and was dispatched to her first fire.

She says the most memorable fire she worked on was not the first one, but one that ran so wild, it shook the nation.

The fire was the legendary Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988, known as “The Summer of Fire.” According to National Park Service (NPS), multiple small fires caused by both people and natural elements burned approximately 63 percent of the park.

That year the NPS had to recruit firefighters nationwide to contain the inferno, and one department that jumped on board was the CDF where Norma served as a dispatcher.

“I dispatched crews from all over the western U.S. to go and help with that fire,” McDonnell said. “We had special trucks provided by the Office of Emergency Preparedness, and anytime there was an emergency of a certain size, I would call them out.”

Fighting fires is not for the meek, and Norma said she had got herself into a sticky situation while fighting one of her first wildland fires, which happened to be right across the street from the fire station.

“It scared me,” she recounted. “I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t have any breathing gear on. I started running away from the smoke and felt like a sissy for doing that.”

But she said when she looked around all of the other firefighters were running away from the building, too.

Her husband of 57 years, Fred McDonnell, says he had also tried his hand in the fighting fires, but only lasted a couple of months before he got burned out from juggling fire responsibilities and his breadwinning responsibilities as a union plumber.

Although the couple never fought fires together, they said they had run into an unfortunate situation while returning home from the Moose Lodge, a fraternal organization in Riverside County, California.

“It was on the 1-10,” Fred said. “There was a wreck with a diesel involved. I stopped our car, got out and started directing traffic.”

McDonnell says she remembers rushing outside to make sure everyone was safe but found the truck driver frantically looking for something inside his big rig while it was ablaze.

As a trained fighter, she said she felt it was her duty to dive into the burning truck to help the man. When she found him, he had been frantically searching for his Chihuahua.

“I couldn’t find the man’s dog,” she said. “It burned.”

After her firefighting days, she said the couple wanted to move to an affordable area that was close to an LDS temple, and found Manti to be the perfect fit.

Now, because the couple has settled into retirement, they say they want to relax. And if toilets flood or fires go up, they call plumbers and fire departments to handle the dirty work.