Building Emergency Services

Row River Fire Response plans to serve highest fire risk area in Lane County

By Craig Reed

Lorane Rural Fire Protection District Assistant Fire Chief Jim Bailor, left, and Row River Fire Response Board President Walt Bernard try on fire resistant clothing donated by LRFPD. Photo courtesy of Row River Fire Response

Row River Fire Response is committed to creating a safe community through prevention, preparedness, and effective fire, medical and other emergency response.

As the forming of the Row River Fire District is being discussed, its mission statement explains its purpose.

“I think people have been waiting for this for a long time,” says Walt Bernard, a 20-year resident of the Row River Valley that lies east of Cottage Grove. “People have been doing fire prevention things on their own, but as it has gotten hotter and drier, people are very worried.”

Residents of the 25-mile-long valley must approve the fire district by a majority vote. The vote is scheduled for next May.
“We think the community is now on board with forming a district,” Walt says. “You never know until the vote comes in, but all we can do is try. We’re optimistic.”

Kathleen Istudor, a 20-year Row River Valley resident, says establishing the fire district is “something we need to do as a community. I’m very confident people will vote yes.”

About 200 people attended a June 25 informational meeting and showed support for a fire district.

Row River Valley, with about 450 private properties that include structures, has never had a fire district. The valley reportedly has not had a major fire since the early 1900s. There have been small fires that fortunately have been contained by the efforts of residents with mobile water tenders and tanks, South Lane Fire and Rescue engines from Cottage Grove or Oregon Department of Forestry crews.

Walt remembers a Dorena-area fire in 2018 that destroyed 5 structures but was contained to less than 10 acres. Kathleen says a recreational vehicle fire a year ago threw flames 30 feet into the air. That fire was also contained, but Kathleen says there’s potential for something bigger.

“The recent fires have really brought home the fact we have no protection here,” she says. “We understand the Holiday Farm Fire (173,400 acres burned in the McKenzie River Valley in 2020) could easily happen to us. Our community is not prepared for these fires. We have neighbors with water trailers who come to help when there’s a fire. We’re very, very thankful for that, but we need a proper fire district.”

A Lane County Rural Comprehensive Plan indicates Row River Valley has the highest classification of fire risk and has the least fire protection in Lane County.

Walt and Scott Byler began talking about forming a fire district a year ago. Their goals were to have a Special Rural Fire Protection District with its own funded operation and for the community to start immediate response operations as an auxiliary unit of South Lane Fire and Rescue.

South Lane Fire Chief John Wooten said during those early discussions that if the Row River community was willing to form an organization and do the work, South Lane would help make the district happen by providing training, certification, equipment and other support.

John explains the Row River response operations will be temporarily under South Lane’s control to ensure the new district is ready to stand alone once it’s formed.

The chief says the risk of catastrophic fire in the Row River drainage is extremely high. Part of this partnership is to help put a force in place that can rapidly make an initial attack and help prevent a potential conflagration.

In anticipation of a Row River Fire District, a board of directors has been formed. Walt is the president, John Kirk, vice president; Reta Cochrane, secretary; Kathrine Reinecke, treasurer; Kathleen grant writer; Jennifer Ferraez, volunteer coordinator; and Scott, who is finding property for future fire stations. Walt says another 50 com- munity members are helping the board move the project forward.

The plan is to have a main fire station and another three or four substations spaced across the length of the valley. The equipment will include 2 fire engines, a water tender and several pickup trucks with water containers. The community has already received 1 fire engine, a gift from the Scappoose Fire District.

“It’s older, but in perfect shape,” Walt says. “All rural fire districts use mostly used equipment.”

Another fire engine will be donated by Sauvie Island Fire and Rescue later this year.

Applications for volunteer firefighters in the proposed district are being taken, and training through South Lane is underway. Walt anticipates 20 volunteers will have completed training by the end of August.

“This fire season is not going to wait for a district to be formed, so we need to do what we can now to be prepared,” he says.

The Row River community recently received a $249,540 grant from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office for community wildfire risk reduction. That money will be used to provide defensive space around structures, plus community and school-based fire safety education.

If the Row River Fire District is approved by vote next year then the board can apply for grants to help finance equipment and operations.

More information on the district process can be found at Tax-deductible donations to help support immediate operations can be made through the website.

“We’re very grateful to the community and to the agencies and organizations that are helping us with this project,” Kathleen says. “We know it’s needed, and the community will be better for it.”

In 2018, the community contained a Dorena area fire to 10 acres, despite its destruction of 5 structures. Photo courtesy of Row River Fire Response