Dorena’s Dilemma

Dan Holt’s 1962 fire engine has seen some miles, but can still be used to douse fires.

Part I: The rural community looks to alternate solutions in its search for fire coverage

Dorena residents Dan Holt and George Swain are working to solve an old problem in Dorena: providing the area with sufficient firefighting coverage.

Though Holt has been behind the creation of a volunteer fire response team which serves the area to a degree, the group still faces challenges such as training, liability issues and simply being made aware when a fire incident does occur.

Other residents like George Swain are also taking steps to create more robust fire response options for the vulnerable community.

“It worries people who live in Dorena,” said Swain, who has lived in the Dorena area for 65 years. “You know, we don’t have a fire department on the books and we are very concerned. And the more people that we can get concerned about our situation, the more likely we’re not going to turn into a Blue River.”

Blue River was one of the communities burned in the Holiday Farm Fire of 2020 that scorched more than 173,000 acres on either side of the McKenzie River.

One alternative solution has been Dorena’s volunteer group, spearheaded by Holt, which responds to area fires with a loose-knit group of vehicles scattered among the community. The group began forming only a couple years ago, but it’s not the first time Dorena residents have tried to address the need for fire responders.

“That issue out there is not a new one. It’s honestly been going on for decades,” said South Lane County Fire and Rescue Chief John Wooten. “Even back in the days of Cottage Grove Fire Department, they knew they didn’t have fire protection. And so, the issue of a structure burning out there is not a new one.”

The issue arises periodically in the public eye whenever there is a fire in the area — especially if it is not covered by the district or a fire suppression agreement.

However, the area used to be home to the Bohemia Mill.

“And they had two [fire] trucks up until the ‘90s,” said Swain. “We were covered.”

Swain and Holt recall the proposal for a fire district in Dorena making it onto the ballot when the mill was still there, too, which may have been part of the reason it ultimately failed.

Voters rejected making the district and, after the mill closed, Dorena residents found themselves in need of a solution.

Need for Service

Today, one of the main reasons cited for the Dorena volunteer service is the community’s distance from any firefighting responders.

“It takes them at least 20 or 30 minutes to get out here,” said Holt. “And if you’ve got a house fire, that’s really too late.”

Wooten said he estimates response times at 15-20 minutes to most of Dorena. Comparatively, average response times within Cottage Grove city limits are less than 10 minutes.

Timing is crucial, too, as every minute counts.

“In an average 2,000-square-foot structure, basically what the science shows is that if you have a fire that starts in a bedroom, let’s say … that fire is going to double in size every minute,” said Wooten. “And then once you reach a point where you have like 50 percent involvement, it becomes very hard to save the structure.”

Most recently, SLCFR responded to a house fire near Dorena on Jan. 31 this year where a fire had reached that point by the time firefighters arrived. The home’s resident was unharmed, but the structure was considered a total loss.

Another issue is coverage.

While the SLCFR ambulance service area is about 800 square miles, the fire service area is at 132 square miles, putting Dorena residents outside the district as the fire service area ends right around Dorena Dam.

Many area residents expressed concern in 2018 when three Dorena households went up in flames and SLCFR protected Dorena Elementary School, but seemed to make less effort to protect the houses.

According to a statement released by SLCFR at the time, the fire was contained to 12 acres.

“SLCFR response included resources from North Douglas Fire EMS and Goshen-Pleasant Hill Fire,” the statement read. “The Dorena area is not protected by a structural agency.” 

As part of an agreement with the South Lane School District, SLCFR provided structural protection to Dorena Elementary School.

The three structures, several outbuildings and vehicles were burned in that fire.

In the recent fire on Jan. 31, because the house was outside the fire district, the responding SLCFR crew left without putting out the fire, according to a KEZI report.

“Our crews followed what our policy says they can do when responding with limited resources,” clarified Wooten. “They arrived, they found that the structure itself was too far gone to save, so they protected the structures that were being threatened around it. They dumped water on the fire to cool it down to protect the exposures and when there was no more threat to those exposures, they left.”

Dorena volunteers did not respond to this fire, reportedly.

Such fires have occurred in Dorena and the surrounding area with some frequency over the years, meaning residents like Holt and Swain are becoming increasingly worried that something will get out of hand. The two estimated they see around four fires per year, both big and small.

Current Options

At this point, Dorena residents do have options, but each comes with a downside.

The first two options involve relying on SLCFR.

To address the coverage issue, SLCFR began offering rural residents a “fire suppression agreement” which would guarantee a response if homeowners pay a tax of $1.50 per $1,000 of property value. On top of that, there is a $300 setup fee and a five percent per year maintenance fee.

Wooten estimated close to 50 of those contracts have been signed. Though this offer is attractive for some, others such as Holt consider SLCFR response times to be too long to be worth the contract.

Those who don’t sign a fire suppression agreement may still receive SLCFR service, but will likely pay a hefty price. SLCFR policy and state law says that the fire agency can bill for that service.

“We have a board policy that says, ‘Okay, we’re going to bill for that. We’re going to recover our costs,” Wooten said. “If you don’t have a fire contract, we’ll still respond, but we’re going to charge you.”

He added that this was more than the agency has done in the past and more than it is legally required to do.

Instead of relying on SLCFR, though, some Dorena residents have turned to other options.

A culture of fire suppression does exist in the area and Swain and Holt have been tapping into what is already there.

For his part, Swain is focusing on making Dorena homeowners more independent through education and water trailer construction.

“I’m worried about the safety of my own home, so I took [a water trailer] and I scaled it down as much as I could,” he explained. “I put the pump on and it was adequate. I made it simple as could be.”

Swain’s water trailer keeps a 300-gallon tank and he is now sharing instructions and encouraging neighbors to build the same trailers in hopes of creating a well-equipped community that will be able to extinguish small fires on their own property before the problem grows or a fire department is needed.

For those without the know-how or funds to build these trailers, Swain hoped to educate people to be more fire-minded and aware.

“Our first thought is that you are your first responder, no matter if you’re a firefighter or not,” Swain said. “We’ve been taught to run from the fire get safe, let the fire department come in and put the fire out. But we have no fire department.”

Such preparation in emergency management was a lesson learned after the snowstorm in 2019 stranded many people, especially rural dwellers, without power or transportation.

The need for values like self-sufficiency and community interdependence became exceedingly evident during the disaster.

On top of individual preparedness and neighbors helping neighbors, Holt’s group of volunteers has created a more organized structure do address fires in Dorena.

It all started when Holt decided to purchase and begin restoration of a 1962 Ford C850 fire engine. He finished major repairs on the decades-old vehicle in October 2020, which served as a bright-red banner for those interested in establishing a community fire response team.

Area volunteers got their first taste of firefighter training with the engine in March 2021 as the effort to create a Dorena fire response team gathered momentum.

Eight residents attended the training on Holt’s property, learning to operate the various functions of his engine as well as the basics of approaching and evaluating a fire.

That training was conducted by a firefighter with North Douglas Fire and EMS, however the agency has reportedly distanced itself from the training session due to liability issues — a concern shared by other fire agencies who have refused to train Holt and his fellow volunteers.

Despite a lack of training, the volunteer group has grown to about 10 response units and another 10 or so volunteers on a call list.

Swain and Holt say there are more vehicles in the area, but some residents don’t want to be involved, preferring to keep trailers or trucks for their own personal use.

Swain is on that call list, however, and says he’s independently rolled out on around four calls with this trailer despite it being less than a year old.

The volunteer group itself, complete with dispatchers, has responded to a handful of fires as well.

Swain plans to connect with Dorena community members who have trailers or vehicles before fire season this year and find out who else would like to be on a call list.

Holt considers the unofficial “district” to cover from Dorena Dam to about the 20-mile mark up the Row River. At this point, too, he says he’s content with the volunteer service they’ve created.

“What we’ve got is probably better than most rural fire departments because all these water trailers are spaced probably no more than four miles apart in our 15-mile fire district here,” said Holt. “We’re pretty well prepared for any fire that comes up. Except for a huge forest fire; we might not be able to stop that. … But with what we’ve got, we can get water on almost any fire that’s in our district.”

Ideally, he said, SLCFR would coordinate with the Dorena volunteers on fire responses, but so far the fire agency has been reticent to do so, mainly due to issues around liability.

Chief Wooten emphasized that he has great admiration for the Dorena volunteers’ efforts, but he still has serious concerns around safety, training and liability insurance. Finding a pathway toward official status as a district, he said, would be one strategy for success.

“The fact that Dan [Holt] and those guys want to actually take the initiative to do something out there, I wholeheartedly applaud them for it. Honestly, I think that’s what they need out there is somebody to take the initiative to start the ball rolling. What they have right now and the way they’re going about it is not conducive or beneficial to them getting help, just because of the liability issues that it would present for our fire district — and quite frankly, any fire department in the area,” said Wooten. “We want to see them succeed the right way.”

Swain, too, said that as he continues to tackle the issue with his own strategy, he supports efforts for a more legitimate fire entity.

“There’s still people up here that would like to establish a fire department, like a district. … and I don’t want to take that away from anybody,” he said.

Part II of the series will look more deeply at the challenges facing Dorena volunteer firefighters and explore options.

For more information on the volunteer service, call 541-946-1445 or reach out by email at danh[email protected]

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