Rolling With the Punches: Fundraising Losses for Rural Firefighters


The Orick Volunteer Fire Department covers a lot of ground for just 11 volunteers — its service area stretches from Big Lagoon north to the Humboldt County line. Secretary-treasurer Judy Hagood makes the department’s shoestring budget work but this year the firefighters will be making do with a little less.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a rodeo this year,” says Hagood. “We usually run the beer booth.”
Roll on the Mattole Wildland Firefighter Challenge - RUDI WEBER
  • Rudi Weber
  • Roll on the Mattole Wildland Firefighter Challenge

The beer booth fundraiser brings $2,000 annually for the department to spend on emerging needs; the Orick Community Services District contributes the rest of the department’s budget. The July Orick Rodeo has officially been canceled due to COVID-19, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

“I think this year has put a crimp in everybody’s plans,” says Hagood. “It’s ridiculous, totally ridiculous. It puts a hardship on everybody.”

Donna Hufford, a chamber of commerce member, also mourns the fundraising revenue lost by the rodeo’s cancellation. Income from the rodeo contributes roughly 50 percent of the chamber’s income, money that it uses to support beautification efforts and other ongoing projects, including supporting tiny Orick Elementary School.

“It’s very disappointing and difficult,” says Hufford, adding that the closure of the National Park visitor centers means an additional loss of tourism revenue. A recent spate of burglaries and vandalism, in which the chamber’s weed eaters were stolen and the local school’s propane tanks were broken, has increased the need for revenue just when the flow of seasonal money has slowed dramatically. The chamber plans to hold a private event in lieu of the rodeo that will allow local youth to participate in gymkhanas and other competitions.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the county, the Honeydew Volunteer Fire Company is also strategizing how to compensate for the loss of its biggest annual fundraiser — The Roll on the Mattole. The July event, held at the Mattole Grange, attracts hundreds of people for live music and a firefighter’s muster. The friendly competition between regional firefighting crews, including those from Honeydew, Petrolia and Whale Gulch, has importance beyond just the spectacle, says Peter Marshall, acting fire chief and board chair of the HVFC.

“The Roll gives us a chance to present those ideas that we live in a fire adaptive area,” says Marshall. “Fire is a part of our lives here. The firefighters’ challenge opened up that idea. It also strengthened our relationships with other fire departments.”

Marshall added that the competition — during which firefighters are timed laying hose and digging fire lines — is a vital opportunity to display and practice wildland firefighting skills. Along with paying the company’s workmer’s compensation insurance and helping buy new equipment, the roughly $20,000 the Roll generates annually is sorely needed for hands-on training. Currently most training is offered through online courses, which Marshall says are lacking, especially when it comes to preparing for wildland fire emergencies in remote, densely wooded areas like the Mattole.

“We’re in fairly good shape now with reserves,” says Marshall. “And we have a couple of ideas that we’re kicking around for alternative fundraising.”

Those alternatives could include a pop-up oyster bar or a commemorative T-shirt, and money is coming in through an alternative source. Bear Extraction House, an Arcata-based cannabis extraction company, is working with some cannabis farmers in the Mattole area to match donations to the fire company through its fundraising program Project Humboldt Thrive. (Bear Extraction House could not be reached for comment by deadline.)

Marshall said the nonprofit is grateful for the contributions but he sees a loss of the community spirit that kept the fire company afloat when it was established 33 years ago, when it was more common for residents to contribute regularly to the fire company as a public service.

“Our roots are firmly planted in the community,” says Marshall. “The history of the fire company, regardless of hell or high water, has always been rather spontaneous community support.”

Marshall says new laws regulating cannabis have negatively impacted small farmers, changing the nature and efficacy of community support.

“The majority of the community members are not so much now in the position to make financial contributions,” he says.

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