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Cordes retires after 23 years as chief

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - Earl Cordes


   For nearly 23 years, Fire Chief Earl Cordes, of Madras, has been on call 24 hours a day, up to seven days a week. Next week, he anticipates some uninterrupted sleep.
   "I'm definitely looking forward to that, not getting woke up by a tone or a call from dispatch," he said, recalling all the years of nighttime calls. "There were times I'd have to go out and check on someone's burn barrel. I'll be glad to not have to do that."
   Although Cordes' last day as the chief of Jefferson County Fire District No. 1 is Dec. 31, many members of the community and fire officials from around the region bid him farewell at a cake and coffee event last Friday at the fire hall.
   Representing the Oregon Department of Forestry, Stuart Otto, of Prineville, presented Cordes a plaque of appreciation for all the years the fire department has cooperated with state forestry.
   "His people are prepared for wildland fire," said Otto. "These days we have a lot of structures in the forest, and the Oregon Department of Forestry is not trained to fight structure fires."
   The department has partnered with the local fire department for structure protection. "It makes the work easier when you can share the load, and we've had a very good relationship with Earl," he said.
   Longtime resident
   A lifetime resident of Central Oregon, Cordes was born in Prineville and moved to Redmond when he was 7. Later, he moved to Madras when his father, Earl Cordes Sr., built a business here.
   In 1980, Cordes was managing Central Tractor, owned by his father, when he began volunteering for the department.
   Over the next five years, while still selling John Deere tractors, he worked his way up through the volunteer ranks to assistant chief.
   "I took it hook, line and sinker," Cordes said. "I basically lived at the fire station."
   In May of 1985, he was hired as the department's first full-time, paid fire chief.
   Over the past 23 years, the district has seen considerable change. Cordes, 54, recalled that the old fire station -- now the New Energy Fitness Center -- was too small to accommodate all the equipment.
   "Some of our apparatus had to be parked outside," he said.
   Paperwork was done alongside the equipment. "My first office was in the garage next to the fire truck, and I had to share the desk with three people," he said.
   The department's desk had three drawers, he noted, so in recognition of his status, "I got the top one."
   In the late 1980s, the fire department passed a bond to build a larger facility on the corner of J Street and South Adams Drive, and moved in on Oct. 7, 1989.
   With that bond retired early, the district passed another levy in 2000 to purchase additional equipment.
   The department, which responds to about 650 calls a year over about 200 square miles, now owns five staff vehicles, and 13 pieces of fire apparatus at the two stations. Equipment includes structure engines, light and heavy brush engines, water tenders, and a light rescue vehicle.
   Cordes feels good about the district's accomplishments, especially since the equipment levy passed in 2000 has also been repaid. "We have no long-term debt," he said.
   Volunteerism increases
   During his tenure, volunteerism at the department has increased. "We have the most volunteers we've ever had -- 55 volunteers out of two stations," he noted.
   The department relies heavily on volunteers. "Especially in Central Oregon, we're one of the last fire departments that's almost totally volunteer," he said. "It's a wonderful group of people."
   The volunteers supplement the five paid positions and four student positions. Besides Cordes, the four other paid positions include: assistant chief and fire marshal (Mark Carman), training captain (Bob Sjolund), support services/firefighter (Mark Johnson), and administrative assistant (Bobbie McConkey).
   Four students on scholarship from Central Oregon Community College are spending two years working for the JCFD -- two students in Madras, and two at the Culver station, which is rented from the city of Culver.
   "COCC provides full tuition and books," Cordes explained. "We give them a monthly stipend -- about $350 for food and gas. In turn, they live here for two years and work for us during the summer; the rest of the year, they work one to two days a week."
   Cordes credits the volunteers with allowing the department to operate with a budget of $1.2 million.
   "If we had to staff with paid people what our volunteers do now," he said, "I've estimated it would be about $4 million. We'd have five or six firefighters."
   Why do so many volunteer for such a dangerous job? Like other types of volunteers, Cordes believes firefighters have a desire to give back to their communities.
   And then, there is the excitement of fighting fires. "We all are like little kids," he said. "It's a huge adrenaline rush."
   "When you rescue a baby and give it back to its mother's arms, the tear you get, you just can't describe that," he said.
   During his 28 years with the organization, there have been many memorable moments, from the one civilian death from a fire, to a fire retardant drop in the Madras Ranchos area.
   However, since the fire department also responds to accidents and medical calls, two non-fire events stand out as high points. In both cases, individuals were technically dead, and he helped bring them back to life "and they're still around today," he said proudly.
   The most memorable fires were those that threatened his firefighters' lives. One of those occurred in a wheat field north of Madras. Firefighters were fighting the fire when the wind switched direction and blew fire directly over a fire truck and two firefighters.
   The firefighters were out on the ground, using a hose, when the wind shifted, he said. They shielded themselves behind the truck, sprayed water in the air, and held their breath.
   "When the smoke cleared and I saw them coming out, I just hugged those guys," Cordes said. "I thought I'd lost some firefighters."
   After his retirement, Cordes plans to do some traveling with his wife, Delita, the principal broker at Century 21 Gold Country Realty, ride his motorcycle, play more golf, read, do repairs on their rental properties, and spend time with their 10 grandchildren.
   Since he has a real estate license, he admits that he may end up helping his wife and her two daughters in the Century 21 office.
   Cordes also has a son, Jason, of Madras, who works as a lead man at Bright Wood Corp., and a daughter, DeAnn Henry, an office manager for a fire equipment company in Vancouver, Wash.
   Although he doesn't anticipate doing any local firefighting, he will continue to work as an incident commander with the Central Oregon Incident Management Team, based at the U.S. Forest Service office in Prineville. The team responds to large fires in the western United States.
   "You can't get it out of your blood," Cordes said.