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$6 million will help Oregon fire districts hire more firefighters

Firefighters with Portland Fire and Rescue demonstrate how they would apply fire retardant foam to contain and extinguish an oil train fire.
Anthony Schick
Firefighters with Portland Fire and Rescue demonstrate how they would apply fire retardant foam to contain and extinguish an oil train fire.

In recent years, intense and devastating wildfires have left fire districts across the state struggling to manage them with limited resources.

Some rural districts, like Colton Rural District, are entirely reliant on volunteers.

Colton Fire Chief Todd Gary said the district, about 30 miles outside of Portland, dealt with the devastating effects of the 2020 Riverside Fire.

“A lot of the Riverside Fire was in the Colton Fire District, and our guys did an outstanding job here.”

But Gary said having paid staff ready to jump into action could make all the difference. “That initial attack on those small fires and getting on them while they’re small is so important,” Gary said. Now, first-of-its-kind funding of $6 million from the state will help understaffed, rural fire districts like Colton Fire pay for additional firefighters this fire season.

The Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal announced this week that 180 of 306 local fire districts and departments across Oregon were awarded up to $35,000 to support staffing during this critical time of year.

Oregon State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple wrote in a statement, “Agencies will be able to have additional paid firefighters at the ready during these critical summer months. This will help to keep fires small and away from communities.”

Funding for the staffing grant was made possible through Senate Bill 762, which was passed by state lawmakers in 2021. An official with the State Fire Marshal said the bill only covers funding for this year’s fire season.

“This is an opportunity that we’ve never seen before,” Gary said. “...I can’t say enough about what the state of Oregon and the fire marshal’s office has done to make this happen.”

Out of 185 districts that applied for the grant funding, almost all of them were approved. Colton Fire District used the funds to hire two full-time firefighters to supplement the volunteer crew, who often work other jobs during normal business hours.

“We have two people here from 8-5 to be able to support this community. It’s an unbelievable opportunity for Colton,” Gary said.

State officials voiced concern this spring that Oregon could be in store for a difficult wildfire season because of a multi-year drought. And a national labor shortage has made staffing fire crews a challenge. Additionally, a wet spring has increased potential fire fuels, like grass.

Gary said the increased staffing will help rural areas respond to fire faster.

“We need to get on these fires immediately,” he said. “We can keep them small and we don’t get those large fires like we had in 2020.”

Gary said the funding has already paid off. A small fire broke out on Tuesday, and with the help of the new staff, the district was able to put it out.

“I think this is just a start on what we’ll see in the future and it’s already made a difference for us,” he said.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Alex Hasenstab