Upper Yakima Valley’s volunteer firefighter shortage could mean delays during emergencies

NACHES, Wash. — The majority of fire departments in the upper Yakima Valley are made up of locals who are retired or have their own day jobs, but serve during their free time as volunteer firefighters.

But those volunteers are in short supply at places like Nile-Cliffdell Fire & Rescue and the Naches Fire Department, which could mean delays in responding to 911 calls in rural areas.

“Most people in our department have jobs, so when the tones go off, (the response) is going to depend on who’s going to be home,” Nile-Cliffdell Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Kevin Paxton said. “For us to get on scene, depending on where it is, we could be 30 to 40 minutes out.”

Paxton said the department responds to everything from medical calls to search and rescue missions to fires — including long days working to put out the massive Schneider Springs Fire last fall. He said community support and donations were essential in supporting those efforts.

Now, the department is dealing with increased costs for everything from the fuel they put in their emergency vehicles to the medical supplies they use to help save lives — plus a significant shortage of volunteers.

According to Paxton, his department currently has 17 to 18 area residents trained to respond to medical or fire calls on a volunteer basis but to consider the department fully staffed, he would need between 30 and 40.

That’s why Paxton and other area fire officials are encouraging community members to reach out to learn more about becoming a volunteer firefighter or find other ways to donate their time or money toward keeping their neighbors safe.

“You can come in at any time and get the training,” Paxton said.

Volunteers set their own hours and availability to be on-call for any emergency calls and while they’re not full-time paid firefighters, Baird said they do receive a small stipend.

“We are definitely not here for the money,” Paxton said. 

Paxton said anyone interested in learning more can call Nile-Cliffdell Fire & Rescue at 509-658-2445 or follow the department on Facebook to learn more or to find out when their next training is so they can come observe what it’s like to be a volunteer firefighter.

Naches Fire Department Chief Alan Baird said he has about 30 volunteer firefighters on his team and would like to have 35. He said while having more volunteers than that would be helpful, it’s not an option due to the cost to outfit a new volunteer with the necessary equipment.

“It’s about $4,000 dollars per person, so it’s pretty expensive,” Baird said.

Baird said being a smaller city, Naches doesn’t generate as much tax revenue as bigger cities in the county, which puts their department at a disadvantage when it comes to funding. He said that’s why community donations are always so appreciated.

In addition to covering a large span of territory, from milepost 194 on Highway 12 all the way up to the summit of White Pass near the Lewis County border, Baird said the department is also responding to more calls than ever.

Baird said they hit their high last year at nearly 400 calls, with most of those being emergency medical calls. He said that’s partly due to the increased number of people traveling through the area.

The population in Naches and surrounding areas is fairly small, but Baird said they’re also responding to calls from some of the thousands of people traveling through the area, camping, hiking, boating, skiing or just on their way elsewhere.

Baird said the number of people turning to outdoor recreation in their spare time spiked during the pandemic and that’s continued to bring more travelers in from across the state, further increasing their call volume.

READ: Naches firefighters struggle to keep up with medical calls

Despite the challenges, Baird said they still have room for more people on their team and encourage Naches residents to apply. He said while some calls end badly, there’s nothing as rewarding as those calls where he’s able to help save a life.

“Yesterday, we had a pretty serious accident on White Pass, it was a semi versus pickup and both drivers were seriously injured,” Baird said.

Baird said both drivers were also trapped in their vehicles and it was a challenge to extricate them. He said it took firefighters about three hours to painstakingly get the semi truck driver out without further injuring him, but he survived.

“That’s a big deal: you spend all this time, you don’t even know this guy and you’ll probably never see him again, but he’s another human being and you’re able to help him out when he needed you the most,” Baird said.

The Naches Fire Department can be reached at 509-653-2380 or on their Facebook page. Firefighters in Naches, Gleed and Nile-Cliffdell are also recruiting young people to join their cadet program to learn more about firefighting as a potential career path.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter in Yakima County can learn more about the process and where the closest fire department is to their home at makemeafirefighter.org.

Community members can also make a difference by attending the Nile Valley Days this weekend at Jim Sprick Community Park in Naches and purchasing an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast for $9.

Pancakes are available from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the fire station next to the park and all proceeds will benefit Nile-Cliffdell Fire & Rescue.

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