Recent house fire exposes lack of volunteer firefighters

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer April 03, 2013 01:46 am

By the time Brookings firefighters arrived at a burning house on Gardner Ridge Road on March 15, the home was fully engulfed and not much could be saved.

It had taken firefighters about 13 minutes and eight miles to reach the fire from the Brookings fire hall. They were assisted by the Harbor, Winchuck and Cape Ferrelo fire departments. 

The burning house was located only a mile from the Upper Chetco Fire Station, where a fire truck that could have been used sat empty. No volunteers firefighters were responding because there were none.

A family of three escaped the blaze, which was caused by the accidently ignition of a boat flare inside the house.

Brookings Assistant Fire Chief Jim Watson isn’t sure if the house could have been saved if someone from the Upper Chetco Fire Department had responded.

“It’s hard to say if there would have been any different outcome if we’d had a truck up there (earlier),” Watson said. “We don’t have any experienced people up there (in the Chetco district) at all.”

The Upper Chetco Rural Fire District covers the area along the Chetco River from the Riverside Market to Loeb State Park and extends four miles up Gardner Ridge to the Forest Service roads begin.

A lack of volunteers has left the Upper Chetco Fire Department with no responders, and Watson worries about the upcoming summer season, when duff on the forest floor, trees and lower fuel sources dry up to create potentially catastrophic wildfire conditions.

“If this fire would have been in a hot and dry period …” Watson said, adding that nearby trees were already drying out from the fire’s heat and starting to ignite. “If it’d been August, September, October, we might still be trying to catch it.”

That’s why volunteer firefighters are so important, he said.

A recent mailing to 120 citizens in the Upper Chetco district resulted in seven showing up at a meeting and two joining the board. One, Janet Hughes, picked up an application.

She’s never been a firefighter, but she was interested because she lives on the north bank of the Chetco River and is aware of the fire danger.

“I’m able-bodied, I’m a good grunt, I can do what I’m told — get in and do it and not be afraid of it,” she said, listing her reasons for wanting to join. “When I light piles in my backyard, I know how to not let it get away. I figured I could help.”

Hughes is 62 — at the opposite end of the typical age range for volunteer firefighting.

But she’s not afraid of work, she said. Hughes maintains 27 acres on the North Bank Chetco River Road and splits her own firewood.

“I don’t fear hard work or the possibility of getting your hands dirty,” she said. “I can do that kind of stuff, but if we don’t have a crew to do the work. … Not to worry. Things come around when they should.”

She also realizes that in an isolated rural area, residents have to look out for themselves.

“We are our own fire department first,” Hughes said. “By the time you call out the troops and they get there, it (a fire) can get away from you — especially in the summer. Then you’re going to be in trouble. The first line of defense lies with us.”

Yet, fire crew can’t respond to any call without the assistance of fellow volunteers. At least three firefighters are needed on a scene: an engineer to drive the truck and pump the water and firefighters to knock down the fire.

“We might teach her how to start the vehicles once a week so they’re still ready to go, so the batteries are up,” Watson said. “And she doesn’t want to be the only one (volunteer).”

Such is the dilemma facing many small, rural fire departments. Brookings Fire Department has signed a contract with the Upper Chetco district to provide services for the outlying area because Chetco has no one to do so itself.

“They had four volunteers,” Watson said. “One retired, then the chief retired, and the last two retired in October.”

Brookings has 29 volunteers and two paid staff. Harbor Fire and Rescue has 24.

Watson says it’s hard to recruit volunteers because many younger residents are often busy with jobs and family and older ones don’t have the energy.

“Usually it’s a younger person’s game; it’s pretty physical,” Watson said. “We are trying to talk to people. If we could get two or three people up there, that’d be nice. Six, seven, eight; that would be the best.”

Residents interesting in volunteering for the Upper Chetco or Brookings fire departments can call 541-469-1140; those living in Harbor can call the Harbor Fire and Rescue at 541-469-5301.