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MailTribune.com
  • A need for volunteers

    Applegate Valley district finds itself with an age-old dilemma
  • When a tree faller was seriously injured by a log rolling over him in a remote area of the Applegate Valley on the morning of Sept. 27, carpenter Richard Goodnough dropped his hammer and raced to his other job.
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    • How to volunteer
      Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter for Applegate Valley Fire District No. 9 should contact the district headquarters at 541-899-1050 or pull up an application on the district web...
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      How to volunteer
      Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter for Applegate Valley Fire District No. 9 should contact the district headquarters at 541-899-1050 or pull up an application on the district website at www.applegatefd.com.

      Applicants should live within 1 mile of the district boundaries or within 5 minutes of a district fire station.

      Deadline for applying is Dec. 31. The annual training academy will begin in mid-January and end in early March.

      The Friends of the Applegate Valley Fire District is also looking for members. Since its inception in 1986, the auxiliary group has raised enough funds to purchase some $85,000 worth of equipment for the district. It meets at 6 p.m. each third Tuesday of the month at the district headquarters in Ruch.

      The auxiliary group can be contacted at 541-899-1050 or through the district website.
  • When a tree faller was seriously injured by a log rolling over him in a remote area of the Applegate Valley on the morning of Sept. 27, carpenter Richard Goodnough dropped his hammer and raced to his other job.
    A volunteer with Applegate Valley Fire District No. 9 for more than 31 years, Goodnough is the "rigger" on the district's technical rescue team. He quickly rigged up a rope and pulley system, enabling rescuers employing a backboard to lift the injured logger out of the steep canyon to a point where he could be airlifted to a Medford hospital.
    "That was the longest rope rescue we've had — close to 400 feet long," he recalled. "When you can help someone like that, that's a real good feeling. It gets your adrenaline going."
    But the veteran firefighter, who is also the battalion commander for the district's west side, is pushing 65. He plans to begin reducing his firefighting role in the next couple of years.
    "I don't know yet what route that might take, but I'm not going to be an 80-year-old firefighter," said the fine arts graduate of what is now Southern Oregon University. "I'm not even going to be a 75-year-old firefighter.
    "We do have volunteers who are 70 or pushing 70, and I'm awfully proud of them," he added. "But intense firefighting is a young person's sport. There is no doubt about that."
    Unfortunately, not enough young people are stepping forward to fill the firefighting boots of older volunteers cutting back on their activity, resulting in a thin line of volunteers at some of the district's seven fire stations, observed district Fire Chief Brett Fillis, 52, a firefighter for more than 30 years.
    "Because of the demographics in the Applegate Valley, our volunteers are traditionally older," Fillis said. "Some of our best volunteers, we acquired them when they were in their 40s and 50s. We now have a number of them who are long of tooth."
    Like Goodnough, he is quick to observe there is an ongoing need for seasoned firefighters to provide supporting and leadership roles.
    "But we would also love to recruit a lot of 20-year-olds," he added. "We don't, mostly because they are not here. And those we do recruit, by and large, we lose most of them shortly after they graduate from our academy. They move into town, go to college."
    Consider the district's demographics: 24 percent are 60 or older; 29 percent are age 50-59; 11 percent are 40-49; 17 percent are 30-39; and 19 percent are 30 or younger.
    Conversely, statistics by the National Volunteer Fire Council, an association representing volunteer firefighters nationwide, show that the lion's share of volunteer firefighters are relatively young, Fillis said.
    "Right now, some of our fire stations aren't getting out like they used to — the number of volunteers is too low in some areas," he said.
    Firefighters from at least two stations are always deployed to an emergency, ensuring there is adequate coverage, he said.
    "We are always assured there is a response," he stressed.
    In a letter being sent out to the community as the district launches its annual recruiting drive for volunteers, district operations chief and training officer Chris Wolfard, 31, indicates the goal is to add at least two firefighters to each of the fire stations.
    "We continue to lose existing volunteers at a rapid pace, primarily through attrition: retirement, relocations, job changes, etc.," he wrote. "Recruitment has only kept up with turnover. This, of course, does not address our growing needs; and we find ourselves nearing a critical position, especially if we do not recruit equal or increased numbers for 2013.
    "It is a fact that some of our stations, on occasion, do not or cannot respond to 911 calls, the cause being the stations not having enough volunteers to ensure a response 24/7."
    Created in 1981, District 9 covers a rural area of about 10,000 residents throughout the Applegate Valley. About 20 percent of the district is in Josephine County, stretching halfway between Provolt and Murphy on the west end of the valley. To the east, the district extends to Jacksonville and south to Applegate Lake.
    The district currently has seven full-time employees, including Fillis and Wolfard, along with 44 volunteers. There are a half dozen women volunteers now, as well as one who works full-time for the district.
    Some areas in the district are in greater need for volunteers than others. For instance, the fire station built on Griffin Lane off Sterling Creek Road in 2009 has one volunteer living in an apartment at the station and only one other volunteer, Fillis said.
    "We need six or seven volunteers there," he said. "We haven't received the volunteer response there we were hoping for."
    Over at the fire station near the McKee Covered Bridge on the Upper Applegate River, the number of volunteers has fluctuated from two to six over the years, Goodnough said.
    "The outlying areas are in a bit of a struggle to maintain the volunteers we need," he said.
    Some volunteers step forward as young men or women as part of a career path. But others are purely altruistic, simply wanting to help their community.
    "We've always felt it is a good thing to have both — each offer different roles," Wolfard said in an interview.
    A 1991 South Medford High School graduate who spent a few years in college, Wolfard didn't find his niche until, after a chat with his father, he decided to try his hand at fighting fires. He started taking classes at Rogue Community College, where he earned an associate's degree in fire science. After two years of volunteering, he joined the Phoenix Fire Department full time in 1998 before coming to Applegate Valley Fire 10 years ago.
    "People like firefighters," Wolfard said. "You are helping people out. You are making a difference in people's lives."
    Fillis, a 1979 graduate of Rogue River High School, became a volunteer at the Rogue River Fire Department while still a junior in high school. He also went to RCC for firefighting training.
    "We do meet people who are often in the middle of the worst day of their lives," Fillis said.
    But many they encounter along the way often become lifelong friends, he added.
    "I always tell new folks that you will get to a point where you think you've seen everything," Fillis said. "But that myth will quickly go away. It doesn't matter how long you've been doing it. There is always a new curve coming."
    Even in the rural district, they occasionally pluck a cat from a tree and have even been known to help deliver a baby for a mother who didn't make it to the hospital in time.
    Volunteer firefighter Gary DeSimone, 46, a native of Long Island, N.Y., became a volunteer early this year after completing training. He moved to the valley a little over a year ago, purchasing a 36-acre dairy he is turning into a multifaceted farming operation.
    "I've always liked helping people out," he said. "I thought it would be a great way to serve and help others in the community. In Long Island, we always had a lot of volunteers for the fire department.
    "But you also get something back," he added. "You get training that is very useful."
    His first year as a volunteer proved eventful, from structure and wildland fires to medical calls, including assisting in rescuing the injured logger, he said.
    "This is a great opportunity for young people to help out the community while learning great skills for a potential career," he said.
    That career path is what drew fellow volunteer A.J. Zanitsch, 27, who went through the academy with DeSimone. Married with two young children, the Ruch resident has an internship with the district while attending fire school at RCC. He also plans to become a paramedic.
    "I'd definitely like to make a career out of it," said the South Medford High School graduate who attended college in Hawaii for two years. "The fire science program at RCC is top notch.
    "I've always wanted to do this," he added. "When I was younger, every time I saw a fire truck, I wanted to follow it. Every time I saw an accident, I wanted to stop and help out. Now I'll be able to do that."
    Zanitsch, who worked last summer as a seasonal firefighter for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the experience as a district volunteer has been good for his career.
    "I'd love to stay with District 9," he said. "If the door opened and I was able to get on full time, I'd love to stay here."
    Veteran volunteer Goodnough, who had wildland firefighting experience before becoming a volunteer, recalls that it was both the lure of excitement and the ability to help his neighbors that drew him to strapping on firefighting gear.
    "Way back when I joined, I was still an adventurous young man, so it was part of being an adrenaline junkie," he recalled. "But it was always because volunteering as a firefighter is one of the most rewarding things a person can do for a community."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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