Rural fires strain county departments

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Personnel from five Lincoln County fire departments battle a rural structure fire at the home of Doris Myers on Friday, Nov. 3. Rural fires makeup about a third of the calls county fire crews respond to and can strain the resources of small, volunteer departments.

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Doris Meyers watches as fire crews combat a residential fire at her rural home east of Waldport on  Friday, Nov. 3.


By: Nathan Howard
of the News-Times

WALDPORT — Doris Myers didn’t have time to save anything before the flames destroyed the home she’s lived in since 1972.

The utility room fire spread quickly, and by the time fire personnel arrived on scene at her rural home east of Waldport, the house was already engulfed in flames.

“There was a loud bang and I ran in to see what it was… and there was something that was hanging down that was on fire,” Myers said while she watched fire crews do battle with the crumbling structure that had been her home for the past 45 years.

“Clarence (my son) called the fire department, but by then everything was on fire,” Myers said.

As personnel from five different Lincoln County fire departments worked to douse the flames late into the evening on Friday, Nov. 3, Myers said all of her family heirlooms were still in the home.

“I never even thought of taking anything out,” Myers said.

Chief Gary Woodson of Central Oregon Coast Fire and Rescue said investigators struggled to pin down a cause for Friday’s fire, but did narrow the area of origin to the utility room that originally alerted Myers.

“In that particular area there was a dryer that was in operation at the time, and there was a wood burning stove, and an electrical panel there — so there’s just no way to narrow it down,” Woodson said.

Friday’s fire, while unparalleled in the emotional impact it had on the Myers family, was a fairly common example of the challenges that Lincoln County fire departments regularly face while fighting rural structure fires. These challenges can range from simple necessities like finding a nearby water source to stubborn livestock that inhibit the movement of emergency vehicles.

“No joke — I have had to deal with a big bull in the middle of the road who really didn’t care if we were a fire truck or not. He didn’t feel like moving, that was his road,” said Newport Fire Chief Rob Murphy. “Eventually we ended up turning around, we had to find another way.”

In other scenarios, personnel can’t locate homes due to poorly labeled address numbers or access roads that can’t accommodate large emergency vehicles.  

“We were fortunate (the Myers) had a big driveway,” Woodson said.  “But sometimes you’ve got a long narrow lane further than a mile, and you’re lucky to get one truck up there.”

Of the 30 residential fires that Central Oregon Coast Fire and Rescue responded to between January 2013 and March 2017 (The most current data available from the Oregon State Fire Marshall’s office), nine were located in rural portions of the fire district. Five additional fires were located outside of city limits but close enough to the city that municipal water services were likely used.

As with most rural fires, the Myers’ residence was isolated from any municipal water source, forcing crews to use tender trucks (fire engines that carry large water supplies) to transport water from a hydrant more than a mile away.

This water transport system, known as a tender shuttle, presents additional problems for the county’s fire departments. In addition to the extra training a firefighter must undergo to master these techniques, first responders often lack the required vehicles and manpower to execute rural water supply operations without assistance from neighboring departments.

It usually takes 15 to 20 individuals to fight a structure fire of any size, Murphy said, and an additional two to four tender trucks if the fire is isolated from a water system. However, only three of the county’s fire departments own more than a single fire tender (Siletz Fire, Toledo Fire and Rescue, and North Lincoln Fire and Rescue).

This deficit means that fire departments across the county are dependent on one another in the case of any and all structure fires. That dependency grows deeper, however, if fires are located far from the infrastructure of an incorporated city like Waldport.

“I don’t think there is a department in the county that can fight a structure fire on their own,” Murphy said.

With 30 percent of their residential fire calls located in rural portions of the county, Central Oregon Coast Fire and Rescue faced a relatively high volume of isolated fires. Compounding the challenges of rural firefighting is the department’s reliance — like most departments in the county — on volunteer firefighters, Woodson said. Volunteers often need to be called into the station after the initial 9-1-1 call is received.

By comparison, in 2016 nine of the Newport Fire Department’s 71 fire calls were for rural fires, according to the department’s internal statistics. But even Newport Fire, one of the largest departments in the county, is dependent on a roster of 30 volunteers, a number that dwarfs their nine full-time staff members.

“It’s a fact of life,” Murphy said. “Anytime you’re fighting a fire outside the municipal water system you run into these challenges.”
Those challenges will continue to translate into real life impacts on rural families like the Myers, which make up about third of the Central Oregon Coast Fire District.

Despite the tragedy, the Myers said they will continue to live on their 60 acres at the end of East Eckman Road, and rebuild just as they did 10 years ago after Clarence's own home burned to the ground.