ECHO — In a city that spans less than 1 square mile, an unassuming fire station sits at the edge of downtown.
The Echo Rural Fire Protection District, made up entirely of volunteers, covers 496 square miles, handling all fire and medical calls that originate south of Stanfield between Pendleton and the Morrow County line. And they are currently doing it with a crew of fewer than 20.
“We really want to keep our numbers higher because you really don’t know in a volunteer fire department how many people are in town or in-district,” said Fire Chief Delbert Gehrke.
In the last two months, two active volunteers moved away. And while ERFPD has never been unable to respond to a call, volunteer availability during emergencies has been slim before.
“It’s a concern of mine,” Gehrke said.
The ERFPD came into about a third of the land it protects today a few decades ago when Umatilla County wanted to reduce the amount of “no man’s land” — land that doesn’t have fire district protection — in the county, according to Gehrke. The East Oregonian reported in 2016 that the county still has about 156,000 acres that lack fire district protection.
“We have a river, a freeway, a railroad. And gas lines. We’ve got a little bit of everything,” said ERFPD Assistant Fire Chief Janie Enright.
Gehrke said ERFPD fights many grass fires, and usually about one structure fire a year.
Balls, a bell, and a barbershop
Echo Rural Fire Protection District, one of the largest fire districts in the state, was formed more than 100 years ago, when a group of volunteer men gathered in Carl Gilbert’s barber shop in January 1905 with the interest of starting a fire company.
The company initially raised money by hosting an annual Fireman’s Ball at City Hall, according to the city of Echo. Eventually the fledgling company purchased a bell for a little over $100 — almost $3,000 today — and the number of tolls notified volunteers where the next call would take them.
Instead of speeding to the scene in a fire truck, the volunteers took one of three manpowered hose carts in the area. And although the hoses sometimes froze, the equipment was all eventually modified to be towed by a pickup truck.
Echo Rural Fire Protection became a district that could collect tax revenue by 1950, when the first fire truck was purchased.
Today, the ERFPD is able to respond to emergencies using an app called Active911, which provides key dispatch details right to a first responder’s phone. But Enright, who joined the fire district volunteer crew in the early 1970s with her late husband, Tom, who was fire chief, remembers a different time completely.
“When we joined, they didn’t have a paging system,” Enright said.“We had less fire trucks and old equipment.
Instead, there were three fire phones — including one at a local tavern — and whenever the district got a call, the crew would run down to the station to set off the fire alarm.
Enright said the district was somewhat of a pioneer in the 1970s when they began rigging pickup trucks with water tanks, a move that she said the Heppner Fire Department followed suit.
“We didn’t have a big budget, that was the best way for us to get out and fight fires,” Enright said.
Today, the district has multiple stations and 16 fire trucks.
ERFPD will be replacing one truck from the 1970s with a 2009 Freightliner, which was purchased at a low cost through the Firefighter Property Program, run by the U.S. Forest Service. Gehrke believes the new truck will be rolling out to calls by early July.
“Even though it’s not new, it’s new to us,” he said, “We run on a very limited budget.”
Gehrke said the district brings in about $96,000 a year in tax revenue, with Echo being the only city in the district.
“It sounds like a lot, but in this day and age, it’s not,” Gehrke said.
It costs about $5,000 to properly outfit a single new volunteer in structure and wildfire gear alone.
The ERFPD relies in part on grants from a number of federal agencies and local entities. Last year, a grant from the Echo Community Benefit Fund allowed the district to purchase masks with built-in thermal imaging systems.
“It certainly is more efficient, a little easier for them,” Gehrke said, adding that thermal imaging devices are usually handheld, which can slow down the firefighting process.
But the new equipment might not see as much daylight as it could, since the ERFPD is especially strapped for volunteers during working hours on weekdays.
Those interested in volunteering can contact the district on Facebook or reach out to Echo City Hall. The process includes a questionnaire and an application. New volunteers undergo a six-month training period.
Volunteers can help with tasks, such as driving, recording medical information and fighting fires.
“It’s not about having to do everything. It’s not like you’re a paid firefighter. You do what you want to do, we’d just like to know (what),” Gehrke said.
It can be hard to find people who are willing to give up their personal time, Gehrke said.
“If you’re able-bodied and willing to give up two nights a month, get out of bed at 2 a.m. and give up a little bit of family time to be on call,” Gehrke said. “It’s the more the merrier. It takes a lot of people to effectively fight a fire.”