WOLF CREEK, Ore. — The northern Josephine County community of Wolf Creek was left without its own local fire protection after the entirety of its volunteer firefighter force resigned last week, leaving the district's elected board of directors scrambling for an alternative.
The problem was thrown into stark relief early Wednesday morning when the store attached to a 76 gas station in Wolf Creek caught fire. Mutual aid proved to be the one saving grace, as Rural Metro Fire and a constellation of fire agencies from across Josephine and Jackson counties responded.
"The expectations of the public today are such that no single fire department can stand alone, and this system allows us to back each other up in real-time, with basically an exchange of services agreement," said Chief Philip Turnbull with Rural Metro Fire.
Firefighters managed to keep the flames from spreading to the nearby gas pumps, but the store was a total loss. Meanwhile, just yards away, the Wolf Creek Fire Department station stood inactive.
Chief Steve Scruggs and the Wolf Creek volunteer firefighters resigned on October 13, citing a list of complaints against the district's board of directors — claiming that board members lacked integrity, put the budget ahead of safety, interfered in the daily operations of the fire district, allowed people to berate volunteers at public meetings, and failed to declare conflicts of interest, among other accusations.
The Wolf Creek firefighter force was not large when it dissolved. They were consistently short-staffed, according to former Lieutenant Mike Putnam, and there were no more than seven volunteer firefighters with the department when they walked away last week. One part-time paid office manager stayed.
"We got disrespected by the board and the citizens," Putnam told NewsWatch 12 in a call on Thursday. "You know when you show up on a call, citizens come by and say things to you — negative things. The disrespect was no good."
Putnam lives in Grants Pass and commuted to Wolf Creek for the department. He says that while he did enjoy the job and wanted to help out a neighboring community, he feels they were treated unfairly and it was time to move on.
"The board has a meeting I believe every week, and they were continuously disrespecting the Chief," Putnam continued. "They had it out for him since I've been there. I don't know why, but they've been trying to get rid of Chief Scruggs since I've been there ... and he works hard, he's a hard worker."
Wednesday night, after the fire at the 76 station, the Wolf Creek Rural Fire Protection board of directors held a meeting with the fire chiefs of other local districts, looking for advice on a way forward — one that will likely lean heavily on the mutual aid network, at least for the time being.
"The first thing is to get some personnel in place, and I've got the other chiefs that are willing to do some of the administration for us ... because the board doesn't know about firefighting," said David Clark, board president for the district. "You know, we're board members. But the other chiefs are willing to step in and help train our people and get our people on track. Then hopefully we'll find a local person who wants to become chief — do the training and get promoted up to a chief."
Austin Prince, operations chief for Rural Metro Fire, said that the Wolf Creek board of directors faces some unique challenges as they learn how to run a community-based fire protection system, but they've been seeking guidance from neighboring agencies like Rural Metro and the Glendale Fire Department.
Clark expressed his respect for the nearby fire agencies and thanked them for the work they've done for the Wolf Creek community.