In preparation for another active fire season, the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit of Cal Fire is searching for volunteers it desperately needs to fill thinning ranks in the Mountain Area.
Battalion Chief Troy Cheek said volunteer numbers have dwindled over the last 20 years.
At the former Oakhurst station near the library in 1994, there were 25 volunteers on staff, Cheek said. Today? Less than five. And for stations like No. 14 at Bass Lake, there’s only one.
“Generally, volunteer firefighting is down across the board in the entire country,” Cheek said. “It’s at least a 20% drop nationally, and worse here.”
Plus, Cheek said, a high percentage of Mountain Area volunteers are older than 70, meaning should they decide to move or retire from their service, without replacements, fire service in Eastern Madera County will continue to decline.
“To a fire department like Madera County, volunteers are invaluable,” Cheek said. “We can’t put a price on what they do, and we can’t do our jobs without them.”
Federal and state training are part of the issue, Cheek said, with almost 190 hours required as opposed to far more lenient requirements in past decades.
He said though training sessions are held nights and weekends, some changes are underway to help streamline the process.
“What we’re hoping to see in the next year is to make training modular,” Cheek said. “So you can train in different sections, such as medical or basic firefighting at different times. This will help free up people who work 40 or 50 hours a week to do training when they can.”
Cheek said volunteers are paid for responding to accidents and fires, but work for free on medical emergencies.
He said if volunteering disappears in the Mountain Area, residents will likely see stations close as well as slower response times.
“I always told young firefighters when they start that they have one of the only jobs people are willing to do for free,” Cheek said. “There has to be something to that, and we really need people to come volunteer.”
To sign up or for more information: (559) 675-7799, volunteerfirefighter.org.