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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Fatality part of tough year for firefighters

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Fatality part of tough year for firefighters

A house fire in April 2002 claimed the life of Julia Hughes, the first house fire fatality in Baker City since the 1980s. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).
A house fire in April 2002 claimed the life of Julia Hughes, the first house fire fatality in Baker City since the 1980s. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).

By CHRIS COLLINS

Of the Baker City Herald

The April 2002 death of 72-year-old Julia Hughes, who died in a fire at her east Baker City home, was a first for most of Baker City's firefighters.

And although the number of structure fires — 28 for the year — was on par with the year before and 10 fewer than in 1999 and 2000, the past fire season took a heavy toll on the department.

The department took on new responsibilities, responding to fires in some rural parts of Baker County.

And the risk firefighters face in the line of duty was driven home in 2002 by a pair of tragedies.

The community mourned the death of former Baker City firefighter Randy Carpenter, who died in November in the line of duty fighting a Coos Bay fire. This summer two Baker City wildland firefighters — Bart Bailey and Daniel Rama — also were killed in a motor vehicle accident en route to a fire.

"This is the reality of what we do. It comes with inherent risk," said Fire Chief Tim Frost.

Hughes' death was the first fire-related fatality in Baker City since the 1980s.

"Most of this department had never been on a fatal fire," the chief said as he reviewed the department's activity for the year.

The medical examiner determined Hughes died of smoke inhalation. The fire was started by a short in an electrical lamp.

Frost, a 20-year firefighter who was hired as Baker City fire chief in 2001, has experienced more than 10 fatals during his 20-year career, including a triple fatality.

"It's something you always have in the back of your mind, but the reality of the job hits when people see the first person involved and killed in a structure fire," he said.

"It takes a while for the guys to get over these things," said Frost. "They don't forget them."

As Frost looks to the year ahead, manpower is his major concern for the department as it considers ways to continue to provide the same level of service to the community at a time when the city is facing a revenue shortage.

The city and rural volunteer fire departments are investigating the possibility of recruiting prison inmates to help fight structure fires just as they are used on wildland fires.

"It's a manpower pool we haven't tapped yet that I think is going to be a valuable resource for us," Frost said.

He points out that the Baker City Fire Department would join the ranks of others run by all volunteers if not for the city's ambulance service, which occupies the majority of the department's time. Last year, in addition to the 28 structure fires, the department also responded to 37 grass fires and four vehicle fires. By comparison, the ambulance was dispatched to 333 calls to rural areas and 723 calls within the city during the year.

"The ambulance pays for six more firefighters," Frost said.

The department's current staff includes Frost assistant chief, Fred Hertel, and 10 other firefighters. That allows it to operate three three-person shifts with one person who floats throughout the schedule as needed, Frost said.

Frost hopes to retain the current staffing level as the city enters into budget sessions this spring.

Juveniles and fire prevention

One area that the chief would like to see expanded is prevention training in the classrooms and throughout the community. He believes that would help curb the loss of life and property by fire.

About a dozen juveniles were referred to the department last year for evaluation of their fire-setting potential, Frost said.

"We evaluate their tendencies to want to play with fire and how serious they are," he said.

After evaluating the child, the department refers him or her to mental health or to the state fire marshal for further counseling if necessary.

"We're probably just a match away from having a significant wildland fire with a juvenile — somebody playing who just wanted to see what would happen," Frost said.

The Baker City Fire Department is working with the Oregon Department of Forestry, Fish and Wildlife and the prevention program to develop juvenile fire-setter prevention programs, he said. The agencies are seeking grant funding that would help provide a cooperative prevention program.

Extension cords linked to fires

Several of the fires the department responded to during the year, including the one in which Hughes died, were linked to the use of lightweight extension cords, known as zip cords, for long-term use.

"A zip cord is not a permanent answer to anything, especially not on heavy appliances," Frost said.

Working smoke detectors also are important to help ensure a safe escape from a burning building. In about half the fires the department responds to the smoke detectors are inoperable, he said.

Shingled roofs covered by tin also hampered firefighters' efforts and increased damage in several instances during the year.

Cooperation with volunteers

On the positive side, the year saw the Baker City department working to improve its cooperative efforts with rural volunteer fire departments.

"None of us can do it alone anymore," Frost said.

Because of the time involved in being a volunteer, recruitment is becoming more difficult. By working together, the districts throughout the county are able to make better use of their training time and to practice their firefighting skills, he said.

That's especially important for some of the rural departments such as Sumpter whose firefighter rosters include volunteers in their 50s and 60s, Frost said.

But the time involved discourages some people who might otherwise volunteer for the job, a problem that plagues fire departments through the country, he said.

Volunteers must first complete an 80-hour training and then are required to attend two drill nights a month. The basic EMT training requires 120 hours of study to volunteer on the ambulance crew.

In addition to agreeing to provide mutual aid to the valley's rural districts, the city has contracted for one year to respond to fires in the Greater Bowen Valley Fire District. Other fire districts also are being considered for the Medical Springs area and the Surprise Springs area near Sparta, Frost said.

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