WDAY: The News Leader

Published August 03, 2010, 09:49 AM

Fighting Fires: A family tradition

Barney, ND (WDAY TV) - She shattered the glass ceiling and built new family traditions. Mary Peterson of Barney, North Dakota, is the first woman ever selected as president of the State Fire Association, which helps govern local fire departments. An emergency in Richland County is often a Peterson family reunion.

Mary Peterson used to dread this sound. She remembers days at home with the kids in her rural town, hearing the whistle and knowing no one would respond, because the men were out of town at work.

Mary: “I felt guilty. I wanted to help.”

So she did. Mary decided to suit up herself and join the department.

Mary: “Prove to the guys that I could do it.”

Including her husband Ralph, who was Fire Chief at the time.

Ralph: “It was a man's world back then.”

She worked hard to disprove their doubts and in the process, held several leadership roles, and inspired her family. Her son Matthew now volunteers for the all male Hankinson department.

Her daughters Samantha and Anna Jo say she inspired them to beat the odds joining Barney and Abercrombie's departments. The five of them have a combined 75 years of firefighting experience.

Samantha: “They question me and I tell them it's a family thing.”

I guess you could say Richland County's under a layer of Peterson protection. Between Abercrombie, Barney and Hankinson, you'll have at least some family members at any emergency in the area.

Today for the first time, they were all at the same emergency. This car accident is only the third dispatch Barney's received this year, and it happened smack in the middle of our interview, proving how well the family pulls together now and during more serious events.

Mary: “I pray all the way there and all the way back.”

It’s possible that firefighting runs in their blood, these are Mary's grandkids. What do you want to be when you grow up?

Dylan: “Be a firefighter.”

What's certain is that it connects their hearts.

“We love each other so much.”

“So proud and just so exciting.”

And all in a day's work. Mary says she and Ralph never go into burning buildings together to make sure the kids never lose both parents at once.