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Tenmile fire department making most of recent grants from state forestry, fire marshal 

Tenmile fire department making most of recent grants from state forestry, fire marshal

Tenmile Rural Fire District received more than $100,000 in grants in July to bring on temporary help throughout Douglas County’s wildfire season, which has officially started.

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Volunteer fire departments across Oregon have been in a decade-long struggle to recruit and retain candidates. That problem is not unique, but the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office, with assistance from the state legislature, are working to keep its rural departments viable.

The fire department received a $75,000 grant from the state’s Department of Forestry which allowed Tenmile to bring two people on board to help homeowners — especially in the area of the Byron Creek Estates — strengthen, not only defensible space around their homes on Upper Olalla Road, but also ingress/egress paths on those properties.

In addition to that grant, another $29,000 was awarded to the department through the state fire marshal’s office to bring on up to four temporary employees in anticipation of the 2022 fire season.

“We’ve been skating on borrowed time,” Tenmile Rural Fire District Chief Travis Henderson said Wednesday. Henderson was hired into a paid position as the chief of the department in 2020.

Henderson said it has grown increasingly more difficult to find reliable volunteer firefighters at many rural fire stations, not only locally but nationwide.

“Fire is going to happen, but a lot of places don’t have the people or the equipment,” Henderson said. “There’s been a steep decline in volunteerism (in the firefighting community) for a couple of decades.”

The grants came as a result of the Oregon Legislature passing Senate Bill 762. According to the State of Oregon’s official website, the bill provided more than $220 million in funding for better wildfire preparedness. That includes rural volunteer fire departments, which often are the first on the scene of smoke reports in smaller communities.

“I’m so glad the fire marshal helped put something like this through,” Henderson said, specifically of the $29,000 for added help at the station throughout the fire season. “Ever since the bigger fires we’ve had, (the state is) coming down to the local level and helping us out. They’re coming out and getting our feedback.

“We need people. And thankfully, they listened.”

Volunteerism has seen a stark decline over the past two decades, but Henderson noted the drop in volunteer firefighters nationally in just the past two years.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were an estimated 29,705 fire departments in the United States, and more than 19,000 of those were all volunteers, based on data from February 2020. The National Volunteer Fire Council stated at the same time, there were an estimated 1,115,000 firefighters nationwide, and roughly 67% of them (745,000) were volunteers.

With the smaller of the two grants, Tenmile added three additional people to its crew, with another to arrive shortly. Two of those are also working with the Sutherlin Fire Department as they get their training, generally working two 24-hour shifts a week in addition to the shifts they are picking up in Tenmile.

“Even with their sporadic schedules, it’s been huge to have them down here to cover for other volunteers,” Henderson said. “They’ve been (in the office) at times when other people might not normally be here.”

With the Department of Forestry grant, Tenmile brought on two people to perform defensible space improvement. That work began in early July under the tutelage of Tenmile Assistant Fire Chief Leonard Herzstein.

Henderson was hopeful this first round of grants becomes an annual opportunity, based on the very low odds of every volunteer on a 10- or 11-person roster able to respond to an active call.

“We’re going to be writing down everything these people do, because the fire marshal wants to go to the legislature and show them that this money was justified,” Henderson said.

Henderson hopes to retain his grant-aided additions until at least the end of September but, based on the late start to the 2022 fire season, potentially retaining them until mid-October.