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Oronoco Fire Department collects more than 400 pieces of fire gear to donate to Ukraine, other countries

The Oronoco Fire Department has collected gear for about three weeks that will be given to a charity for shipment internationally.

01 Oronoco Fire Department Equipment Drive
Johann Sonnenberg, a training officer with the Oronoco Fire Department, helps unload gear donated by the Crooked Lake Fire Department in Northern Minnesota on Monday, April 11, 2022, in Oronoco. Sonnenberg organized an initiative to collect and send the donated gear to Ukrainian firefighters. Sonnenberg estimated that nine or 10 departments had dropped off equipment on Monday alone.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ORONOCO — Three weeks ago, Oronoco Fire Department officials sent an email to about 50 southeast Minnesota fire chiefs requesting used gear to add to Oronoco’s donations to be given to an international charity.

The response has been, well, on fire.

That email exploded and ended up in the inbox of fire chiefs across the state, and even some in Wisconsin.

Oronoco Fire Department Equipment Drive
Stacks of firefighting equipment bound for Ukraine on Monday, April 11, 2022, gathered by the Oronoco Fire Department in Oronoco.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Oronoco has collected about 150 sets of turnout gear, 100 air packs, more than 100 pairs of boots and 50 helmets. Johann Sonnenberg, the Oronoco training officer and architect of the donation drive, said the estimates are likely lower than what they’ve actually collected.

More than 40 fire departments have donated gear, with a few more departments dropping items off this week. Gear has come from every size department, from Myrtle, Minn., which operates a fire hall for multiple townships south of Albert Lea, and Luverne, Minn., a town close to the border of South Dakota, to bigger departments like that of St. Louis Park, which also donated 40 bulletproof vests. Donations came from as far as Ripon, Wis., a town roughly 200 miles from Oronoco.

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It’s safe to say that Sonnenberg had no idea the collection drive would receive this much attention from departments not in Southeast Minnesota.

“It’s crazy. We did not expect this,” Sonnenberg said. “They call it a brotherhood. But really, it's a brotherhood and sisterhood and if somebody needs help, they're gonna come out and help. Somebody needs help, somebody just sent a text and everybody would be there to help.”

The whole donation drive started when Sonnenberg was inspired by a Facebook post showing Canadian firefighters donating gear.

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“We should do this. We can do this,” Sonnenberg said. “We've got gear. Everybody, every fire department has gear that's just sitting around doing nothing but molding or just taking up space.”

The donations are going to Chaplain Ministries International. The Lindstrom, Minn.-based organization is picking up the gear on Saturday, April 23, 2022. From there, the gear will be cleaned, inventoried and shipped internationally, possibly to Ukraine.

“That's what they're hoping for because that's where the biggest need is right now. But if they can't get it there, they'll hold it. Or they'll get it close, maybe Poland or something,” Sonnenberg said. “They have people on the ground in Ukraine and Peru and Mexico, so some of it could go to Peru, some of it could go to Mexico.”

On Monday, April 11, the Minnesota Sheriff's Association announced that the association and sheriff's offices across the state have similarly donated equipment to Ukraine. The association said it collected more than 650 bulletproof vests, 55 helmets and four shields in just a few days.

Abby Sharpe joined the Post Bulletin in February 2022 after graduating from Arizona State University with a sports journalism degree. While at ASU, she created short- and long-form stories for audio and digital. Readers can reach Abby at 507-285-7723 or asharpe@postbulletin.com.
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