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Volunteers get out of the house and into the fire

Firefighters get hands-on training so they can aid Forest Grove crews
by: Chase Allgood and Adrian Shipley,

Most people are taught to flee burning buildings. Three weeks ago, after months of training, Joe Olson stepped into one.

Olson, a 2006 graduate of Forest Grove High School, is one of almost 40 volunteer firefighters that the city relies on to help keep its residents - as well as those in the surrounding area - safe.

For Olson, crossing the threshold into the flaming single-story house on 26th Avenue wasn't quite what he expected.

'I figured it'd be like chaos and it'd be everyone just running around,' Olson said.

Maybe it was the 50 pounds of heat-resistant clothing and ventilation gear he was saddled with, maybe it was the months he'd spent leading up to it, but when the 18-year-old entered the burning building on March 6, he felt a sort of serenity.

'It just seemed really relaxing, watching the flames burn and build,' Olson said.

The house fires are controlled burns managed by Forest Grove Fire and Rescue to create learning experiences for new volunteers like Olson.

Inside a controlled burn, veteran firefighters show the volunteers how fires spread and how water and environmental factors can affect the flames.

After Olson has participated in at least three controlled burns (his second was on Saturday), he'll be able to aid firefighters inside a real house fire.

Which isn't to say Olson, who attends Portland Community College, has been just sitting around the station. He's already worked salvage and clean up on a few calls. Mostly he's responded to medical emergencies.

The Forest Grove Fire Department relies heavily on volunteers, according to Fire Inspector Dave Nemeyer, who oversees the cadet program that trains high school students.

The Gales Creek fire station is completely staffed by volunteers, Neymeyer said, and in Forest Grove, volunteers staff the station house when paid firefighters go out on a call. Should a second call come (something that happens, on average, once a day) the volunteers may then become first-responders and more volunteers are summoned to the station.

Fire department records show that last year volunteers were called 436 times. Nemeyer said that just like the department's 15 paid firefighters, the pool of 38 volunteers has members with ranks based on their skill level and experience.

For Olson being a volunteer firefighter seemed pretty natural. His brother, Tony Carter, has been a paid firefighter on the force for two yearss after eight years of volunteering.

Olson said having a brother in the station was a big help in allaying his initial trepidation and in learning the ropes.

'I don't think I would have done as well if he wasn't (a firefighter),' Olson said. 'He's a good motivator.'

Being the second in the family to fight fires also helped calm his parents' nerves. (Mike Olson runs a local bike shop and Carol Olson is an administrative assistant at Pacific University).

'They kind of got the first taste with Tony being a volunteer for so many years now,' Olson said. 'I think it was a lot easier for me than him because my mom tends to worry about things like that.'

The mix of volunteer and paid staff in Forest Grove is similar to other small cities in Oregon.

McMinnville's fire department has 20 paid firefighters and 50 volunteers, according to Scott Magers, assistant chief. Magers said McMinnville relies on its paid staff for medical expertise, as fire departments around the country respond to more medical calls.

The staffing level in Forest Grove could be stretched if a city funding levy doesn't pass on the May ballot. Nemeyer said the volunteer base is a huge benefit to the department, particularly in light of possible budget cuts.

Last month, Fire Chief Robert Mills estimated that without an extension of the current public safety levy, he'll have to cut about $210,000 from the department's annual budget. He said the gap would require him to cut three paid firefighters from the staff, including one vacancy that can't be filled due to a city hiring freeze.

Olson is happy to help out.

'The reason I've gone on the calls that I have is because I live just five blocks away,' Olson said.