After 20 years in Springfield and another 20 years in Harrisburg, a fire truck that has served both fire departments has been deeded to a new home, with a new role. This past Saturday, Sept. 21, Lieutenant Michael Christensen of the Harrisburg Fire Department rolled the faithful fire apparatus onto the driveway of its new home at Veterans Legacy at Camp Alma, a therapeutic environment dedicated to healing veterans who suffer from the wounds of war. The ceremony held at the camp marked the new role the fire truck will be playing as the foundation of the camp’s new firefighting program.
In the 1990s and spanning two decades when Camp Alma was the inmate work camp of the Lane County Sheriff’s office, Dan Buckwald, former Deputy Sheriff and current Executive Director of Veterans Legacy, spearheaded a firefighting program as a way to not only combat the numerous fires that plagued the area, but also give the inmates life-sustaining skills to use when they were released back into their community.
“The inmates got trained in firefighting by the State of Oregon,” said Dan Buckwald. “They became so good at fighting fires, the state wanted to put them on the recall list. But I said ‘no,’ because we were dedicated to Lane County. We were committed to serving this community, to serving our neighbors.”
Buckwald explained that “If there is a fire up here and someone pulled the fire alarm, no one would know about it because we are not connected to anything. We are in a ‘no fire’ district, meaning no one will answer our call for help if we need it — so the responsibility for our safety lies with us.”
Inmates participated in 44 fires during Buckwald’s initial time supervising the work camp, he recalled. When the camp was shut down in 2008, Western Lane State Forestry felt the impact when there was a fire.
“They had to wait for a crew of 20 firefighters to show up from Washington or Coos Bay, when what they really needed was a crew of 10 for four hours — which is what we used to provide,” said Buckwald.
Now, the Staff and Board of Veterans Legacy is bringing the old inmate firefighting program back to life for veterans who will be residing at Camp Alma. They will be trained as certified firefighters, learn vital work skills that will help them reintegrate into their community and build comradery among their fellow resident Veterans – a literal lifeline so to speak.
“The need for fire protection preparedness is obvious given the remote location of Camp Alma and the surrounding forested mountains, but an important piece the truck brings is the team building potential for our veteran clients,” said Dr. John LeBow, President of the Board of Veterans Legacy. “Working together as a unit to be ready for forest duty, be it fire or just mitigation chores with our neighbors, always brings positive outcomes to the self-esteem — something that is so needed in healing and going forward,”
LeBow said he envisions the scenario where veteran teams would be “on call” in case of a fire emergency even after reintegration into the community following their stay at Camp Alma.
“Of course, keeping this rig shined and ready will always be a point of pride for everyone at Camp Alma,” LeBow said.
In fact, Buckwald plans to build a spacious garage for this “point of pride,” giving the rig a designated place and presence on the land at Camp Alma, and in the lives of the veterans who Veterans Legacy serves.
Veterans Legacy is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) dedicated to healing veterans who suffer from the wounds of war, through agrarian therapy, art therapy, integrated clinical therapy and a special focus on building skills to serve as a lifeline for reintegration into communities.
“Our heartfelt thanks to Lieutenant Michael Christensen and the Harrisburg Fire Department for their generosity in deeding a fire truck to Veterans Legacy,” said LeBow.
—Submitted by Tamara Mullen, Community Outreach and Engagement Director