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Record year for Fire District No. 4

SHADY COVE — Shortly after Fire District No. 4 firefighters finished celebrating their 55th year as an organized district, they realized they were about to set a record.

When 2011 ends, the district will have responded to more alarms during the year than ever before.

As of Friday, the district had answered 1,051 calls for service, what the district calls "alarms." That's 16 percent more than last year and 57 percent higher than 10 years ago, said District Fire Chief Bob Miller.

"Our numbers are high this year without much of a fire season," he said. "It comes from high water in the river — heavy snow runoff. Rafters fall in or get pulled into the river by running into brush or tree branches on the banks. We're so lucky that there isn't more, there are so many people out there on a summer weekend."

Miller said about 80 percent of the district's calls each year are for medical emergencies, including automobile accidents. The remaining calls usually include a few grass and wildland fires, water rescues and structure fires.

A Dec. 7 house fire that took the life of a Shady Cove man is still fresh in Miller's memory, and he said it was particularly devastating to his department.

"Everything was pegged that that was going to be a save," he said. "Eight volunteers and a captain had just returned from medical training. I was covering the station with an EMT and another volunteer — 12 of us ready to go."

With the fire less than a mile from their station, firefighters had already donned safety equipment and air tanks before arriving on scene.

"We're ready to go in," said Miller, "pulling hose, going in the door, and the only room really on fire was his. It's hard to believe that we were too late. Luckily that doesn't happen very often."

Miller said bad memories such as that one are what firefighters call "the skeletons in our closet. Hopefully you won't put too much in there," he said, "and one day have them all come pouring out on you."

In November 1956, after a year and a half as the Shady Cove-Trail Rural Fire Protection District, voters authorized formation of Fire District No. 4.

Serving a rural and residential area of 55 square miles, most running near the Rogue River from Highway 234 to Lost Creek Lake along Highway 62, the district is also responsible for seven miles of area adjoining Highway 227 north of Trail.

The district is staffed with three paid captains, including Erin Elder, who has served nearly 25 years and was the first woman hired by the district.

Eighteen volunteers, including five women, round out the fire-fighting team.

"If you count years in our department, including volunteering," Miller said, "I think I'm the youngest employee in time of service."

Miller was hired as chief in 1992. After 19 years, he was eligible to retire last November but decided to stay on.

"I love this work," he said. "I look at it as a way of giving back, and as long as I can do the job and somebody wants me, I'll be here."

But changes are coming. Miller said the department is losing its senior captain, John Burns, who, unlike Miller, decided to retire after seven years with Fire District No. 3 and 30 years with District No. 4.

Miller calls Burns "Mr. Firefighter and our jet-boat ace."

"John's experience cannot be matched by anyone else in the Upper Rogue," Miller said. "It's going to be a big loss for us. He's brilliant."

"Well," Burns said modestly, "anyone can run a jet boat right up until the time they wreck it. Anyway, I've probably hit every rock in the river from Gold Beach to Lost Creek Lake."

Burns is the unofficial historian for the district, and for many years he presented slide shows showing district firefighters in action. These days, while waiting for calls at the station, he's been arranging his slides and hoping to make at least one more presentation.

"I'd like to get it on DVD," Burns said. "I'm just not sure of the technology."

Miller credits much of the district's success to all the volunteers, including a support group that provides meals and helps with cleanup and restaging of fire equipment after every fire.

"It's also the experience of our firefighters," he said, "their dedication to the area and how much they're dedicated to the fire department.

"I feel it's a little easier here because of the community. All the people we contact are wonderful."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.