In the shade of a sturdy carport sandwiched between Orleans' only gas station and the local community center, eight volunteers clad in yellow T-shirts churn out a steady stream of veggie burgers, chipotle burgers and hamburgers ordinaire.
The Wednesday afternoon burger stand run by the Orleans Volunteer Fire Department (OVFD) has become a fixture in the Klamath River town, a place where the last restaurant closed down almost a decade ago. A 90-minute drive inland from the coast and about two hours south of the Oregon border, this region is home to 655 people, according to the U.S. Census, and proclaims itself the Mid Klamath.
The rock composition of the Klamath mountains is fascinating in a steep, twisting, wrinkled up way. The ground here is constantly shifting. If you squint while looking up a drainage, your eyes will pick out leaning old fir trees, askance and unsettled by the ever-moving earth. Rural residents here are used to living with fires in the summer and floods in the winter. Roads, electricity and phone service are reliably unreliable. About the only thing you can count on year-round is your neighbors.
It's not an uncommon predicament in Humboldt County, where more than 30 volunteer fire departments cover terrain and provide life-savings services from Garberville to Yurok country by the mouth of the Klamath River, to Orleans. And, according to Humboldt County Fire Chiefs Association President Jeff Robison, these departments saw a notable increase in calls for service last year that, in turn, increased operational costs. With these departments heavily dependent on property taxes, special assessments and fundraising, the county of Humboldt has also allocated them a portion of the five-year, half-cent sales tax hike — Measure Z — county voters passed in 2014 to bolster public safety services.
Back in Orleans, the burger business has turned into a vital revenue generator for the volunteer department, replacing fundraisers that were more successful in the fishing heyday on the Klamath River. But even more critical has been a recent infusion of young bodies and energy, which, coupled with the gratefully received influx of Measure Z funds, gives OVFD old-timers hope for the future.
While rescues by volunteers in Humboldt County's rugged, unincorporated northern edge never quite ground to a halt, its volunteer fire department has come close to shuttering a couple times, first in the 1980s, when the local economy moved away from timber and 11 logging families left town, and again about six years ago, when membership dipped too low to muster an adequate response to emergency calls.
One of OVFD's longest-standing active members is Tom Bouse. German by ancestry, with a strong build, a thick wave of white hair and a thick pair of glasses to match, he puts people instantly at ease. At 84 years old, Bouse is an institution in his quiet, reassuring way, he and his wife Lynda having been mainstays in the department since they first moved to Orleans in the 1960s.
Today, Bouse is working the burger stand he and Lynda have managed for many years, taking orders and calling them back to the open-air kitchen.
Misters above cool customers and workers with a gentle spray to make the wait for food a little easier. Between orders, Bouse recounts volumes of OVFD history, dropping names too fast for a reporter to scribble them all down. One customer circles back with a botched burger order and the mix-up is sorted out to everyone's satisfaction. Another returns to place a second order, explaining he doesn't want to cook dinner.
"Right now we've recruited quite a few younger people," Bouse beams. "We were getting geriatric there for a while. We've got about 10 young people now. For the first time in a long time, we have a qualifying four people to respond to a house fire."
The "qualifying four" achievement means OVFD meets an industry standard for posting two trained volunteers outside a house fire while two other trained volunteers enter the burning structure. But it's a rare day when OVFD pagers chirp with news of a fire.
"We don't have too many house fires," says another old-timer, Roberta Coragliotti, who came here in the 1970s and owns a peach and pear orchard. "Most of the calls we respond to are medical. ... We get calls for things you wouldn't call the fire department for in other towns."
In urban areas, ambulance response times are typically 10 to 15 minutes, but not here. Hoopa, a 45-minute drive down State Route 96 from Orleans, has the closest "regular fire department" with more resources, including ambulances at the Hoopa Tribal Clinic K'ima:w, at its disposal. But they don't have extra resources, either, says Coragliotti, who has a long brown ponytail and a quick wit to match the practical outlook she's honed through decades serving as the department's secretary, a job she was awarded at a meeting she still laments missing in the 1980s. "Sometimes they're en route to a call in the other direction, so you can't depend on them responding quickly up here," she says. "Who else are you going to call at 3 a.m.?"
For wildland fires, CALFIRE has to travel from Trinidad, where its year-round base is located, if the road over Bald Hills is open. In the summer, they can also respond from Elk Camp at the top of Bald Hills Road. And you can forget about the cops getting here quickly, the elder volunteers say. Even though there's a new resident deputy in town, he's spread pretty thin, with a beat that includes the stretch of State Route 169 from Weitchpec to Wautec, in addition to commitments in Willow Creek and Hoopa.
Amid the smell of smoke and burgers, Bouse, Coragliotti and their cohort of elders reel out a meandering history. OVFD began in 1964, right after the 100-year flood and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1968. In those days, Bouse recalls, "The department used to be on the corner over by the Forest Service office. A red 1948 truck sat there and we used to have to bring our own battery to start the truck and respond to a call. If you left the battery in the truck, it would get stolen." Laughter ripples through the burger stand volunteers.
Bouse first got involved when his co-worker in silviculture at the Forest Service, Gary Gilkison, roped him into volunteering. That was a different era. "It was more cowboy-like," Bouse says. "We'd show up without all the gear and ancient equipment. I don't know if we had jackets, no breathing devices. We were more inclined to just go into the house and go after the fire then."
Since then, getting certified to be a volunteer firefighter has become tougher, in Bouse's judgment. He left OVFD in 1972 and then came back in 1975. "In the '80s, I got recruited again and went to EMT school." He squints, casting back over the years. "I got that training right here in Orleans. I've been to three or four schools since then." Every two years, EMTs need 24 continuing education credits to maintain a valid certification, he says. Recertification also includes a "psychomotor" exam that requires a hands-on demonstration of skills and a current CPR card, which is also only issued after hands-on training.
The people who gravitate to places like Orleans and stick tend to be tough but also kindhearted, recognizing that even the toughest people need help sometimes. And the business of helping people out is a constant learning process.
Elders describe a tough lesson during a house fire in north Orleans early in OVFD's existence, a conflagration caused when a local resident lit a lamp in his sink and ignited the overflow fuel in the drain. The fire quickly spread to the curtains and then the rest of the structure. "We could have saved the house if we'd had more water," Bouse says, shaking his head. After draining their 300-gallon supply of water, the crew had to drive back across the river to refill at a place where their rig could access the Klamath River. By the time they returned, it was too late.
By 1987, volunteers were fully aware of the importance of carrying enough water and had expanded their capacity. Thanks to a donation of an old logging truck and endless volunteer hours reconfiguring it, the OVFD had a 3,000-gallon water tender ready just in time to respond to a rash of wildfires that year, supporting the Forest Service. OVFD's water tender brought in enough contract income to buy a rescue rig and the department made another leap in its ability to respond to medical calls.
Between orders, conversation among the old-timers skips from past to present, present to past. Some of the talk is about the intense, demanding nature of being a volunteer firefighter and the challenges of operating a rural department. Recollections range. Bouse remembers "a guy whose car went off the highway and was hanging up in the branches of a conifer tree like a Christmas ornament." Another local guy went off the road and required OVFD's services twice in one afternoon, they say.
"The thing about working out here is it's always someone you know," Coragliotti says. "I remember when we got the call and it was my mom. My sister and I responded the first time. She was going 'Oh my God, it's mom! What do we do?' I said, 'We do what we always do and worry about it later.' After we loaded her up and sent her off in an ambulance, I burst into tears and then threw up."
The discussion turns back to the fresh crop of volunteers. "Our younger members are great," Coragliotti says, "but sometimes they'll go flying out of the fire hall responding to a call, saying, 'I'm going to this address,' but they didn't take the time to figure out where that is. 'Do you know where you're going?' I'll ask them and help them figure it out." Addresses are of little use in this remote area. Residences are spaced so far apart, often separated by long stretches of bumpy dirt road, that it's not possible to adhere to residence numbering as you would on a city block.
Bouse has been at OVFD longest, with the most EMT (emergency medical training) experience, and it shows, Coragliotti says. "He's pretty good at taking a minute at the beginning of a call to say, 'Where am I going and what am I going to do when I get there?'"
Bouse flashes an understated smile as he hears this and tells about the only burning house OVFD has ever gone into. "Of course, since it was my house, I didn't handle it quite like I usually do."
Everyone has a story about how they wound up a part of OVFD. "I'm doing it for the money," Erin Cadwell jokes, eliciting laughter around the table. Cadwell initially got involved in OVFD because she backpacks routinely and realized one day that if she encountered an emergency in the back country, she wouldn't know what to do.
"I would want someone who came on me on the trail to know what to do," she says. "It's like a universal karmic thing. I believe it's important to get trained and train others, and raise the competency in our community."
Cadwell was 24 years old when she joined OVFD in 2007 and said she was "aghast" that she was the only person under 55 until Eric Nelson joined in 2011.
When he started volunteering at OVFD, Nelson had no previous fire or medical training but after he lacerated his foot on a T-post on his family property, Nelson called and got a response. "At that point, I decided I would be in this community for a while and needed to get involved," he says.
In 2015 he became the department's head of training and elders agree he's grown into the role and gained everyone's confidence.
"He does darn well as a teacher. I have to respect him for that," says Bill Beck, a volunteer who regularly starts all six OVFD vehicles to ensure that they won't have any trouble getting going in an emergency.
Elders describe a recent example, when OVFD responded to a call that required a low-angled rope rescue for an "over the bank" victim of a car accident. Beck recalls, "That one was pretty vertical up there. On the Salmon River. Well, everywhere around here is pretty vertical. Eric was the only person on scene trained in low-angle rope rescues and he had to use that training for the first time immediately after he got it with everyone watching him. It was nerve-wracking. But the good thing is he went really methodical and slow and did a great job."
One of the most recent recruits is Karuk Tribal member Vikki Preston, who started responding to calls in 2016. She wanted to take an EMT class after her grandfather (one of OVFD's founding members) got sick.
"We were living way out Red Cap Road and I needed some more skills," she explains. "A lot of my family lived out there. I wanted to take a class and take some more action — that made me feel better. Now that I know basic things, I wouldn't always have to call." Then the OVFD team, pleased with her training and attendance at OVFD meetings, handed her a pager and said, "You can go on calls now, right?" She said "sure."
Local carpenter Jesse Myers' OVFD tenure started after he raced into town at the tail end of a fire in 2013 when he saw flames from his deck. "I didn't know what to do at that time, but I wanted to be part of the response," Myers says.
He has since stepped up in a significant way, assuming the role of fire department chief. "It's been a pleasure and an honor to work with all these guys — elder and younger responders — who are more qualified than me. It's a lot of work, but it's really satisfying payment to be part of the crew and serve the community," Myers says.
Tall and lanky with blond hair and an easy-going demeanor, Myers strikes a fairly even balance of talking and listening. He's still learning about the background stuff that happens to keep OVFD afloat — reporting, insurance, training, qualifications, keeping up with regulations, going to meetings, keeping up with what the county is doing. At OVFD's regular monthly meeting in September, there's considerable discussion of Measure Z. The money has already enabled the purchase of OVFD's latest fire engine, which replaced a 1985 engine Tom Horn donated many years ago. The county has also allocated some funds for the construction of a new fire hall, but the exact amount of financial aid OVFD will receive is still unknown. The remainder of the funds may not completely cover the cost of construction, but they will play a pivotal role, volunteers say.
Ten volunteers sit in a circle just in front of their aging fire hall in the dusk. Light spills out the bay doors, silhouetting two of the department's four rigs with all their lights and gadgets and heaps of fire hose. It is a smaller than normal group and they are all in street clothes. Proposed motions pass with minimal fuss. It's late summer and everyone is tied up with a host of other commitments competing for their attention. There are gardens to tend, school is resuming, wildfire season is still winding down and windows for prescribed burning are about to open.
Coragliotti is anxious to know if there have been any emergency calls that may have slipped past them lately. The repeater they depend on to make the dispatch system work was fried, OVFD old-timer Penny Eckert explains, so they had to temporarily revert back to the old phone tree system. Communication equipment is high on the agenda. Acting in the role of treasurer, Eckert reviews what's in the bank account, squirreled away for just such an event. "The seriousness of this repeater situation — it's critical. We can't get called out without it!" Eckert emphasized. The good news, she reports, is that they have enough to purchase the needed replacement, prompting a few minutes of discussion on the logistics of the purchase.
A hay truck brakes loudly through downtown Orleans on State Route 96 a few hundred feet to the west of the meeting; the Klamath River drifts silently past a few hundred feet to the east and the moon comes out clear and bright. A visitor might never guess that wildfires were once again burning on all sides. Crickets offer a rural evening bass line in the background.
A new proposed logo circulates around but it won't be approved until the department can solicit a broader spectrum of feedback from tribal leaders about the tribal basket designs interwoven in the ring around the OVFD name. Myers steers the discussion toward priority items of business: a work party to make progress on the new fire hall, which locals Phil and Sue Sanders have granted a piece of their property to make way for.
"Can we schedule a work day for any kind of prep work we can get going on the new site? Are people too busy?" Myers asks.
"Everyone's always too busy. So, schedule it anyway," Eckert responds.
As the meeting meanders from subject to subject, most of them critically important, the culture of the group is on display — these neighbors have spent so much time together, responding in some of life's hardest moments, that they don't waste words or time on formalities. They push each other, sometimes. But they can still tell when their fellow firefighters are tired or overwhelmed and are quick to support each other, too.
The conversation turns to training, rigs and equipment.
Nelson proposes making trainings mandatory to get better attendance; the group pushes back gently, asking for more advance notice when they're scheduled. There's talk of meeting Humboldt County's one-size-fits-all standards that apply to all volunteer fire departments, which are challenging for small departments like OVFD to meet but are aimed at providing better service to the community. They need funding for swift water rescue training and drivers with class B licenses. There is broad agreement on the need for a all-department training day when folks can learn how to use the new structure fire rig, when they can test drive it down different roads to figure which are passable with the rig's longer wheelbase. Everyone agrees that labeling its myriad compartments is a good idea.
Down to the last topic on the meeting agenda, Eckert chimes in again with some characteristic dry humor. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm about dead, so let's talk about the burger stand."
Tom Bouse groans. "I was afraid it would be when everyone's dead that we talked about this," he says.
Myers swoops in to express gratitude for all elders have done to sustain the department and boost income with the burger stand. "I've got a motion to keep the burger stand going. I don't know if we'll be able to do it. It's one day a week of prep."
OVFD old-timer Todd Salberg is ready with a reality check: "No, it's three days a week. And it takes more than three people to run it." It's a lot of food to buy, store and transport.
As insurance costs, legal requirements and qualification standards rise across the board for volunteer fire departments, and income streams in rural places like Orleans wobble without a guaranteed tax base or a stable of wealthy donors, departments like OVFD face long odds. They need not just dollars but also people. Volunteering isn't all blood and guts — OVFD needs people for all kinds of things: filing, starting vehicles, flipping burgers and writing grants, Coragliotti says.
"It's everyone's fire department," Cadwell agrees, "and anyone can come to any of our meetings." (OVFD typically meets the second and fourth Tuesday of every month, with the fourth Tuesdays generally reserved for training.)
With the regularity of emergency incidents in and around Orleans and the lag in response times from more urban areas, it's easy to see why this little fire and rescue outfit got going. It has stubbornly survived by way of the resourcefulness, willpower and grit of its local people. But it's a small pool to pull from in this town and all the volunteers who keep OVFD running have day jobs. None has lots of extra income to fill in funding gaps. Still, when their pagers go off, OVFD volunteers answer the call time and time again, no matter the hour. Young and old members alike seem confident that the community will return the kindness and keep them alive in this time of increased requirements and growing demand.
In the short term, OVFD needs a barn-raising sort of effort to pour a slab that will be the foundation for its new home. There's a deadline, as the money allocated for construction of the new fire hall must be spent by next summer or it will expire. That's a gargantuan task for a group of volunteers in a town of 655. But in a place like Orleans, fueled by hamburgers and community members working overtime to help each other out, where a volunteer department has taken care of its own for more than 50 years, neighbors usually find a way.
Erica Terence is a resident of the Mid Klamath. She lives up the Salmon River and works at the Mid Klamath Watershed Council in Orleans.