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Fire chief resigns to save firefighter jobs

Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief Mike D’Orazi resigned Monday in an effort to free up enough money in the fire department budget to keep three firefighter positions proposed for cuts.

The chair of the Wildfire Safety Commission, Stephen Gagne, announced D’Orazi’s resignation during the commission’s annual presentation to Ashland City Council on Tuesday night.

Last week at the Citizens’ Budget Committee meeting, the committee asked D’Orazi to reduce his budget by $100,000, as opposed to raising the monthly public support fee $5, from $1.50 to $6.50.

According to Ashland Firefighters Local 1269 President Brent Knutson, D’Orazi was asked later in the week by city officials whether he could find a way to cut his budget by an additional $300,000. During his budget presentation earlier in the year, D’Orazi had asked for additional staff and resources.

Knutson said the proposed budget cuts would require firefighter layoffs, so he decided to retire and free up his salary to help fund the positions.

His resignation was effective immediately.

The fire chief’s annual salary was $129,347, according to Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray.

Gagne said the decision was difficult for D’Orazi. Knutson said the department is grateful that he would step down from his position so others could keep their jobs.

“We commend him for taking a stand against potential firefighter layoffs,” Knutson said. “It’s quite the gesture, that’s for sure.”

The city is facing a $2 million general fund deficit that needs to be eliminated by the end of the current biennium June 30.

The city hired three firefighters two-and-a-half years ago without a way to keep them on board long-term, Ashland Financial Director Mark Welch said in a previous interview.

Because staffing accounts for about 66% of the general fund, and the fire department budget comes out of the general fund, cuts were presented as an option to lessen the deficit in the financial director’s proposal to the City Council and the Budget Committee.

Knutson said there’s no guarantee the city won’t still make cuts to the department.

“I’m optimistic that the Budget Committee will do the right thing and not reduce firefighter staffing while also funding the police department appropriately,” Knutson said.

The last Citizens’ Budget Committee meeting was scheduled for Wednesday. The committee will make a recommendation to the City Council, and the council is tentatively scheduled to finalize the budget by June 4, according to Knutson.

The fire department currently staffs a minimum of nine firefighters per shift between the city’s two stations, with a maximum of 10. If the department budget were cut by $100,000, Knutson said, staffing would drop to a minimum of eight per shift split between the two stations.

Station 2 staffing would be reduced by 50%, with the wildland engine and the third-out ambulance at Station 2 left without staff.

He said not having staff on the wildland engine could be detrimental to public safety if a wildfire broke out.

“It’s very, very important that we can staff our wildland engines, because they can navigate the narrower roads,” Knutson said. “If that engine wasn’t available, that severely handicaps what types of resources we can use to fight fire.”

In addition, if $100,000 were cut from the fire department budget, the main firehouse engine would be unstaffed about 50% of the time.

“Which is critical, because 40% of our calls are from Station 2, and 42% of the time we have multiple calls going out at the same time, and it would severely reduce our ability to meet emergency demand,” Knutson said.

He said there was no way to cut $400,000 from the budget without eliminating positions.

“The more people you have, the more people that can extinguish the fires,” Knutson said. “That’s why staffing is so important and why firefighters are so important.”

He said the wildfire season this summer has the potential to be a bad one based on the number of grass fires that have already ignited this year in the valley.

“We’ve had quite a lot of grass fires in the beginning of May, which is unusual for this time of year,” Knutson said. “It’s concerning that’s started already.”

Prior to his announcement of D’Orazi’s resignation, Gagne suggested the city fund all of the resources the fire department had requested, including a combination engine and ladder fire truck, a fire inspector position and a simulation table.

He said he understands that in the face of the deficit, requesting expensive equipment and an additional position is “ill advised at best,” but it’s necessary because of “the reality of Ashland’s increasing risk of a large-scale fire.”

He emphasized his point with statistics from the Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, California, which had roughly 5,000 more residents than Ashland, according to the 2017 U.S. Census.

Six months after the devastating fire, only 6% of toxic debris has been hauled away, and the town is looking at an estimated cleanup cost of $2 billion, he said, adding that the city’s water supply had been contaminated by cancer-causing compounds.

“We hope you’ll agree that it just does not make any sense to wait until after we’ve experienced a significant urban fire before we make sure Ashland has what it needs to be properly prepared, and start lowering our risk in significant ways,” Gagne said.

D’Orazi came out of retirement in Northern California to take the Ashland fire chief job in January 2018. He started as a firefighter in 1979.

Knutson said D’Orazi plans to stay local for the next few months at least, adding that D’Orazi did not wish to comment until the budget is finalized.

Ashland Fire & Rescue covers roughly 6.52 square miles, and provides medical transport services to roughly 650 square miles spanning from the California border to Phoenix.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi resigned Monday in the hopes that the savings from his salary will fund the three firefighters proposed for cuts in the current budget process. Photo taken from an Ashland Firefighter Associaiton Facebook post.{ }{ }