Volunteers train for Dorena fire response

A volunteer at Dorena’s first firefighter training session practices preparing a 1962 fire engine to pump water on Saturday.

Area volunteers got their first taste of firefighter training on Saturday (March 27) as an effort to create a Dorena Fire Response Team has gathered momentum.

“There’s a real legitimate possibility that a real organizational structure can be made here,” said North Douglas Fire and EMS firefighter/EMT Ben Simons, who ran the training session.

Eight residents attended the training on the property of Dan Holt, owner of one of five small, privately-owned fire engines between Dorena and Disston.

Volunteers learned the basics of approaching and evaluating a fire, how to use gear and practiced setting up Holt’s 1962 Ford C850 fire engine to pump water.

They then practiced working together to use the hoses and learned basic firefighting tactics from Simons and two other members of the North Douglas fire district, who happened to be Simons’ family members.

Simons, who is also a former mayor of Yoncalla, emphasized that the training was about minimizing risk and sought to keep the lessons simple.

“It’s easier to build on small successes than on large failures,” he said.

At the end of the session, four people provided their names and numbers to call on in case of a fire emergency.

The push to create a fire district in the area is not new, but Holt has been behind much of it for the past several years.

Holt counts the rural “district” as a 15-mile stretch from Dorena Dam to Disston, including both sides of Dorena Lake.

Part of Holt’s reasoning for the service is the community’s distance from any firefighting responders.

Fires have occurred in Dorena and the surrounding area with some frequency.

Many residents expressed concern in 2018 when three households went up in flames and South Lane County Fire and Rescue (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 School, however three structures, several outbuildings and vehicles were burned in the fire.

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

To address this, SLCFR began offering rural residents a “fire suppression agreement” which would guarantee a response if they pay a tax of $1.85 per $1,000 of property value.

Several dozen of those contracts have been signed since. Though this offer may be attractive for some, others such as Holt are skeptical about response times.

“It takes them maybe half an hour to get out here very far,” he told The Sentinel last October. “It isn’t practical.”

Holt feels that fires in the area are a frequent enough occurrence that the community could benefit from access to its own firefighting source.

At age 79, Holt is hoping volunteers more youthful than he will be willing to offer their time and energy.

Recently, Holt announced on social media that a volunteer dispatcher has joined the effort.

“We have five fire trucks in our area and our dispatcher is Lindsey Cothrun at 541-946-1406.  She will call all of us in case of a fire,” he wrote in the announcement.

Holt added that two or three dispatchers would be ideal in case one isn’t home, though, and that those seeking fire emergency aid can call him at 541-946-1445.

“Even if you are paying the Cottage Grove fire department, we can be there shooting water on the fire until they arrive,” he wrote on Facebook.

Liability, however, Holt admits is an issue, highlighting that volunteers would be operating at their own risk as there is no insurance coverage.

Holt said he is counting on the good nature of those he might potentially help to refrain from litigious action.

Other fire districts in the area have been hesitant to offer him training, he said, likely due to the perception that legal and safety liabilities are indeed a major concern.

Though Oregon does have Good Samaritan Law under ORS 30.800, the statute provides protection for “medically trained persons” and may not protect people from legal liability resulting from a victim’s injury if the aid provider is rendering care outside of their level of training.

Despite these hurdles, some Dorena residents have expressed comfort in knowing that neighbors may be able to come to their rescue should the situation arise.

Others, however, are more skeptical as the existence of a volunteer fire brigade without professional training does not instill confidence.

Also, the full commitment of the other fire engine owners is not quite there, said Holt, and he hopes the creation of an official district will inspire an emergency response community.

“My fire truck has the most water power,” he said. “The only trouble is, I’ve got enough water to knock down most any house fire, but after I run out, if I have to go get more water, I really need at least one secondary truck to keep the fire down until I get the water tank filled.”

More volunteers, too, means all five hoses of his engine could be used to more quickly to extinguish a fire.

Despite some local skepticism, Simons is optimistic an effective organization can be established with enough community support.

Simons connected with Holt and others interested in starting a fire district after Dorena’s 2018 fire.

“So I’ve been trying to impart my fire department knowledge to getting this started and organized into an actual fire district,” he said. “What we really need right now is a group, maybe five to 10, maybe 15 people that are going to be kind of our core founding group.”

To achieve this, he believes a good deal of public confidence will have to be earned.

“They’ve tried this before and it failed because people didn’t want a tax increase,” he said. “But what we need to show these people is that there’s actually value provided here. Their fire insurance on their houses should go down once there’s a fire department here.”

In addition, Simons thinks a volunteer fire department could help build community and bind residents.

With the groundwork laid, Simons still sees a lot of work ahead until a legitimate organization forms, though he will continue providing training and advice in the meantime.

“Eventually, I hope I can step away from it and they can kind of take it and make it their own their own thing,” he said.

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