Large family in small community does its part to help fire crews protect town

With eight children, 76,000 chickens, home schooling always in session and a fire pager sounding at all times, life is never dull in the Bauer household.

But Kelly and Mark Bauer of Snelling wouldn't have it any other way. An abiding faith, love for their family and deep commitment to the small rural community they live in pushes the Bauers along and helps them deal with difficulties thrown into their paths.

"All my children are healthy, I have a wonderful wife, a good business and I love God." Mark said. "There's not much more you could ask for. You've got to be thankful for what you have. We take life way too seriously and God is meeting our needs."

The Bauers, both 45, are Snelling's only volunteer firefighters. They have been paid-call firefighters for almost two years and generally respond to about 120 calls a year in a sprawling geographic area that butts up to Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties and extends well into northeastern Merced County.

Kelly said she and her husband were responding to many emergencies before they became volunteers, and fire service is just part of their calling to serve the community.

"God has called us to be in the right place at the right time. It (fire service) is not the pretty side of things, it's the hard part of life," she said. "Both of my parents instilled in me that you need to give back. There's always somebody less fortunate than you."

Mark said things are never dull, jokingly wonders when things will get back to normal, then acknowledges this is normal. He said he's not afraid to make memories with his children -- whether that's going fishing with them or taking them with him to help with farming chores.

The Bauer Christmas card picture includes Jessica, 25; Tricia, 24; Mitchel, 17; Lora, 14; Emily, 10; Charlie, 8; Daniel, 6; and Grace, 3. Jessica is married and lives in Sacramento where she received a master's degree in psychology; Tricia is married and the manager of the Hooper House bed-and-breakfast inn in Merced. She also hopes to get a master's degree.

Mark Bauer's day typically starts about 7 a.m. and runs until well past 10 p.m. -- assuming the fire pager doesn't sound for a medical emergency, auto accident, boating mishap at Lake McClure or a fire. He said the fire calls usually happen about every three days, although they could go six days without a call and then have six in a row.

Stanley Friesen, the Cal Fire/Merced County Fire Department engineer in Snelling, sings the Bauers' praises. He said it's good to have them as volunteers in one of the biggest coverage areas in the county. "They try hard whatever we need," he marveled. "I wish we had a bunch of them. Everybody knows them in town. They're learning and keep coming, going to all the hard calls."

If Mitchel or Lora are home to watch the younger kids, both Bauers respond to fire calls. If the older children aren't there, one or the other of the Bauers puts on the fire uniforms and heads out. Mark Bauer took an emergency medical technician class at Merced College and will take the EMT I test soon. Kelly took EMT classes before her last pregnancy.

Kelly said most calls fall into three categories. The first is "people being stupid" by drinking, driving and then wrecking their car or truck. Then there are medical calls and just plain accidents. She said she has the utmost respect for the California Highway Patrol officers she encounters on the highway crashes.

Mark is a lifelong Snelling resident who was gone only from 1983-86 when he played semipro baseball with the Oakland Athletics' farm teams in Modesto, Medford and Tacoma. He went through Snelling schools, Merced High School and Merced College.

For 20 years, Mark raised turkeys. This year he has been raising organic free-range chickens on the ranch which is a quarter-mile from their home. Bauer raises 76,000 chickens every eight weeks and said they are much easier to handle than turkeys. He also has 30 acres of almonds and is raising a couple of steers during what he concedes is a seven-day-a-week job.

"Snelling is a very neat place to live," he said. "It's a small unique place and I want to keep it that way. Everybody knows each other and looks out for each other. We still have potlucks at church and a homecoming at the park. When stuff happens, people pull together."

Kelly has home-schooled her children for 16 years, from kindergarten through high school. She said the past year has been difficult as a ceiling fan fell on her head and she was in an auto accident. "This has been an interesting year God has walked us through, with things not of my own choosing. This year Mark filled in more than most dads will," Kelly Bauer said.

The Bauers attend Snelling Community Chapel where Mark is a deacon. Kelly said they are active in the local 4-H program and are regular volunteers with the Awanas youth program at Merced's Valley Baptist Church.

One measure of the Bauers' close ties with Snelling is their annual bonfire Saturday, beginning at 3 p.m. The bonfires, in their 16th year, average between 250 and 300 guests, people from all walks of life, including church, swimming, football, home-schooling and neighbors.

She said the bonfire grew from a few home-school families getting together to the large event it has become. There's a pie-eating contest, games and a chance for fellowship into the evening hours.

Eating breakfast together remains a Bauer family tradition. Each family member adds to the prayer, doing what Kelly calls putting on the armor of God before striking out for the day.

Kelly is thankful for this divine protection. A week ago, during the short but fierce thunderstorm that passed through the area, she was heading to Merced with four of her children to pick up her oldest son from football practice.

As she crested a ridge on Cox Ferry Road, only doing 30 mph during the downpour, a fallen tree stretched across the road. She prayed her young children wouldn't see their mom injured in the impact. In a split second she swerved to the left and went over the tree's top branches. A 15-foot log was stuck under the van but nobody was injured. Her husband then was recruited to use his chainsaw to clean up the tree so no one else would run into it.

"I choose to give the glory to God," Mark explained. "It's not just lucky; God wants the best for us."

He said one of his wife's main accomplishments in fire training was learning to "throw the ladder." That means hefting a 70-pound ladder through a series of intricate maneuvers, lifting and planting it on the ground. With encouragement and training from other firefighters, Kelly managed to master the drill the third time.

"We want to point out what order our priorities are," Mark said. "For us it's God, each other, our family, then our community," Kelly Bauer said.

The Bauers also are licensed foster parents but don't have room for other children and don't want to undertake additional debt for a home expansion.

"We have the room with 40 acres and the love and willingness, just not the house space," she said.

As is, life is never dull.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.