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Local fire districts having trouble finding volunteers

Want to be a hero? Or a quiet servant? Maybe save a life? With a shortage of recruits taking a toll, now would be a good time to become a volunteer firefighter.

"You're doing it for the community," said Capt. Greg Gilbert of the Applegate Valley Fire District. "You do it as a hobby in your spare time."

Applegate has 44 volunteers on its roster, but next door in Williams, there's only a single volunteer to supplement two part-time paid staffers. There are volunteer shortages across the county and across a nation that has other interests and needs.

"In the fire service as a whole, numbers have gone down," Williams Fire Chief Mike Kuntz said. "It's not just Williams."

Williams, one of the prime marijuana-growing regions in the state, has even been looking into abolishing testing for the presence of now-legal pot use by its fire department volunteers, in an effort to attract applicants.

"If marijuana's legal, why test?" Kuntz said.

A town hall meeting seeking community input on department issues is tentatively set for 6 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Williams Grange.

The benefits of being a volunteer include the satisfaction of helping others in time of great need. And there's also the chance to make some great friends. Learning new skills, including medical skills, is a big benefit.

"Greatest career out there," said Gilbert, noting that volunteers and interns sometimes go on to professional careers in firefighting and rescue.

The training for volunteers often occurs on weekends or evenings, although the more-serious interns typically train on weekdays through Rogue Community College.

Volunteers don't have to be superhuman, but they can't be couch potatoes, either. One volunteer began at age 70, Gilbert said. Typically, there's support positions available for those who aren't in the mood for pulling hoses, climbing ladders and doing some dirty work.

"You have to know your limits," Gilbert said. "It's not the job for everybody."

But it's the job for somebody. Wolf Creek Fire District Chief Steve Scruggs and Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Dennis Hoke say they need more help. They each have about 15 volunteers on the rolls.

"There's a lot of educational opportunities and room for advancement," said Scruggs.

"There's a lot of self-satisfaction. Somebody's sick, somebody's injured, you're helping them out."

Hoke said his department is "desperately in need" of more volunteers.

"It's a great organization, a great family," he said. "We saved a house a couple of nights ago. We saved a life on Christmas night. That makes it all worth it."

The Christmas night save involved a man with breathing problems, with the closest ambulance coming from Grants Pass.

"We got him back to breathing," the chief said.

The Illinois Valley Fire District has a resident volunteer firefighter program and is taking applications. Only three of six district stations currently are manned.

"It's a great way to see if it's a vocation you want to get into," Hoke said, adding that best of all, "People really like to see us show up."

— Reach reporter Shaun Hall at 541-474-3722 or shall@thedailycourier.com