FAIRBANKS — Volunteer levels are dropping in local fire departments, and while the borough’s fire chiefs can’t pinpoint why numbers are down, there’s one thing they know:
“Most of the fire service in the Interior is provided by volunteers, and it’s expensive to run a fire service area without them,” said Captain Rob Borland of the Ester Volunteer Fire Department.
There are five fire service areas in the Interior that require volunteers.
The North Star Fire Service Area is the largest in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, stretching from Chena Hot Springs Road to Eielson Air Force Base. The fire service area requires roughly 20 volunteers at any given time.
“Sometimes, we’re lucky if we have about half that amount,” said North Star Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jeff Tucker.
Ester firefighters are seeing the same trends, Borland said.
“Things are definitely slow this year, but it’s tough to know exactly why,” Borland said. The Ester fire department operates with about 18 regular volunteers.
“We’re doing all right, but it’s a little low, for sure,” he said. “We probably need about twice that to run more efficiently.”
With winter being the biggest time of year for fires, volunteer levels tend to be slightly higher during the season. Summer is another story.
“Summer is usually tough for us because people start doing other activities, spending time with family or going to work for the Forest Service during fire season,” Tucker said.
Tucker attributes the overall drop in volunteers to increased requirements of the job and rising unemployment rates.
“People are looking for a full-time paid job right now, and there’s more required training just to be a volunteer,” he said. “Because of that, I think the demographics are changing.”
Tucker said most volunteers are college-aged men who volunteer with local departments while undergoing the necessary training to become professional firefighters.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks and Tanana Valley Campus work closely with local fire departments to train aspiring firefighters. Local stations house some volunteers while they work toward their training and degree requirements.
“It’s a great program, and we’ve been pretty successful with it. But the numbers are constantly wavering, and that makes it difficult to have a steady volunteer base,” Tucker said. “We just don’t see as many community members step up to volunteer like we used to.”
Most local fire departments offer training at 7 each Tuesday night.
“It’s incredibly rewarding, and we’re not just looking for firefighters,” Tucker said. “There’s plenty of opportunity to work with the community and local youth programs.”
Fire departments also are in need of volunteers for clerical work, mechanics and other tasks, such as Web page design.
“Every local fire service area needs the community to step forward so that we are able to provide service at the level required to keep residents safe,” Tucker said.
Borland said most volunteers dedicate about 3-5 hours per week. He said increasing the number of volunteers in the community saves tax money.
“Volunteers save tax dollars. It’s expensive to run a fire service area, and without them, it might not be possible,” he said.
Contact staff writer Rebecca George at 459-7504.
Want to volunteer?
Contact your local fire department for more
• North Star Volunteer Fire Department — 488-3400
• Ester Volunteer Fire Department — 479-6858
• Steese Area Volunteer Fire Department — 457-1508
• University Fire Department — 474-5770
• Chena Goldstream Fire and Rescue — 479-5672