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Colestin fire chief gets Golden Sparky Award

Steve Avgeris has fought many a blaze in his 39 years as chief of the remote Colestin Rural Fire District, and now he just got the supreme honor for it, the Golden Sparky Award.

The accolade, from the State Fire Marshal, honors all-volunteer fire organizations and is awarded to only one person a year in Oregon. It honors his whole career, since 1981, when he started the Colestin unit and began training an on-call force.

Colestin Rural Fire District Board Chair Peggy Moore says the highly competitive award “celebrates an amazing, selfless man who has devoted himself to the safety of our valley as fire chief, as well as to the whole group of 20 volunteers in our community who train and serve without compensation to protect us from fires.”

Avgeris was born and raised in Ashland, the son of a postmaster, and got his inspiration for backcountry firefighting from the 1981 Tunnel 13 fire near the Mount Ashland Interstate 5 exit, when he was 12. That fire was the turning point for volunteer firefighting.

“It was really crazy. No one knew what to do,” says Moore. “It spurred the rule that all volunteers in Oregon had to be associated with a fire district, formed and incorporated with an elected board and fire chief. Steve has been our first and only fire chief.”

Avgeris, 70, demurs from the praise. “This work has been so rewarding on so many levels. You learn how to connect with so many people you never would have met. That’s the big reward. I like working with all the agencies, CalFire, ODF, Forest Service. What I like about fires is stopping them.”

Avgeris played a major role in the 2018 Klamathon fire, which burned 38,000 acres, 82 structures and, said Moore, “basically burned Hornbrook. He spotted it and had logging cats in there at the very start. He cut lines to keep it out of the Colestin Valley. The winds shifted and it went east. It was his quick thinking that kept it out of the valley, where there were lots of fuels.

Avgeris’ team is working harder each year, as fires get bigger and more plentiful, he says.

“One of the main reasons is we don’t take care of forests like we used to. The environmental community wants hands off. We tried that and it’s not working,” says Avgeris. “We’ve got to do something with forests — thin them, take out the dead and dying trees, like we did in the ’50s, and do more grazing. A lot of roads are getting decommissioned. It’s out of control.”

“Our initial attack needs to triple. We need to beef up air support, helicopters, tankers. It buys us time. We need to hammer it till we get ground forces on it. Let’s not spend $200 million out back and only $20 million up front.”

Moore observes her chief is “passionate about the fire district and can always be relied on. He’s honest, truthful, has integrity and is a good leader. He teaches cool, which is not easy in a volatile situation.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Steve Avgeris