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Student firefighters were the very first to respond to last month's food bank fire

Almost to a one, fire districts are constantly seeking volunteers and looking to train new students in the public-safety service realm.

Last month Woodburn Fire District handled a local incident that illustrated just how crucial every single hand on deck can be.

When the AWARE Food Bank fire was called in at 3:21 p.m. Aug. 16, the first firefighting arrivals on scene were Woodburn Fire District student-resident volunteers Jared Redman and Noah Wierstra.

A 2020 graduate of North Marion High School, Wierstra said they quickly realized this was no lesson – it was go time.

"We arrived on scene, and we saw heavy smoke coming from the eaves of the Food Bank and two-foot flames in that corner where the fire started," Wierstra said. COURTESY PHOTO: WOODBURN FIRE DISTRICT - Student Resident Volunteer Firefighters Jared Redman (left) and Noah Wierstra.

Quick action precluded sparks or embers from igniting the roof, which would have resulted in the entire building being engulfed in flames. The students were quickly joined by other Woodburn firefighters, stretching hose lines into the interior and encountering fire in the wall adjacent to the exterior where the fire started. The fire also extended into the attic.

As a crew worked on exposing and extinguishing the wall fire in the warehouse area, a second crew quickly located the stairs to the attic and extinguished the fire that had involved about 25 percent of the large open space.

"If another 5 to 10 minutes had passed before crews advanced into the attic, the entire roof structure would have been involved in fire which could have forced the withdrawal of the interior crews due to the potential for collapse of the roof structure," Woodburn Fire Chief Joe Budge said.

That withdrawal, Budge added, would have resulted in a complete loss of the food-bank building, which housed a tractor dealership the better part of a century ago.

Budge explained that when firefighters from Engine 21 advanced into the attic space, they had no visibility whatsoever, and they were battling high-heat conditions to boot. Nonetheless, they halted the main body of the fire in its tracks, wielding a 2 ½ inch hose line to get the job done.

Meanwhile, crews pitching in from surrounding fire districts rotated into the interior firefighting positions to extinguish the rest of the fire. The fire was officially declared under control at 4:25 p.m.

Firefighters from Hubbard, Aurora, St. Paul and Canby assisted WFD.

"When a large fire occurs, resources from the closest fire stations are automatically dispatched regardless of which district the fire is located. The rapid-fire control would not have been possible without the help of our neighboring fire agencies", Budge said.

City of Woodburn and WFD spokespersons estimated that the fire caused about $100,000 in damage to the structure and its contents. A suspect, who was found and taken into custody, is believed to have started the fire in dry grass and shrubs on the First Ave. side of the building. Woodburn Police were able to identify a suspect with the use of footage from a video surveillance camera.

Students get a nod

Wierstra and Redman are assigned to WFD Fire Station 22 on James Street. As student volunteers, they are full-time fire science or paramedic college students who live on site at a district fire station, which is provided in exchange for emergency response assistance.

Budge said the students stretched out and charged the hose line at AWARE and forced open the access door, then were quickly supported by career firefighters as they entered the building.

"We are very proud of the work that our students did in preventing the destruction of this Old Town landmark and important community service," WFD Division Chief Scott Heesacker said.

Heesacker arrived less than one minute after the student staffed Engine 22 and took command of the firefighting effort.

"When the students arrive first, we teach them to get everything ready for fire attack, look for rescue needs and wait for help before entering a burning structure," Heesacker said. COURTESY PHOTO: WOODBURN FIRE DISTRICT - Engine 21 arriving on scene at the Aug. 16 fire in the building housing AWARE Food Bank in downtown Woodburn.

NMSD spokeswoman Jillian Daley noted that Wierstra, who is usually stationed at a student fire station, happened to be training at the main station while the career firefighters were responding to a medical emergency. When the call came in Heesacker, who was supervising the students, jumped into a command vehicle, while Wierstra and Redmon took off in an engine, lights blazing and sirens blaring.

The main station was the closest to the food pantry, so the three of them were the first to land on the fire scene.

While Heesacker was there to command the scene, it was the first major fire the two students had ever fought without career firefighters initially on hand.

Daley said since Redmon was driving, he operated the controls in the cab of the vehicle to get the water flowing and Wierstra picked up a hose line and rushed toward the building. The door was locked, so Wierstra had to grab a Halligan forcible entry tool – similar to a crowbar -- to pry open the door. Then he opened the nozzle to the line and let the water gush onto the crackling dry wood of the one-story structure built in 1910.

"We would have definitely lost the building if they had not been there," Heesacker said.

Daley added that Wierstra has been on the WFD team since he graduated from North Marion, where he was a National Honor Society student with a 3.87 grade-point average. He became a student at Chemeketa Community College several months ago. By the end of next summer, he will have obtained an emergency medical technician license and an Associate of Applied Science in Fire Protection Technology – Fire Prevention from Chemeketa.

"He is awesome to work with," Heesacker says. "He's very young and motivated. He wants to be a firefighter, and he's just like a sponge. He wants to pick up every piece of information and training he can get."

Wierstra attended a WFD open house where he met Heesacker and Budge.

"They showed me around, and I fell in love with the job," Wierstra said.


•WFD is currently recruiting students to replace two that recently graduated from school and accepted jobs as career firefighters in Kansas. The fire district's student program is touted as opportune for college students to receive real world experience to supplement their academic studies and skill training, commented Heesacker.

•Volunteer members of Woodburn's CERT team responded to provide firefighter rehab services and Long Brothers donated refreshments to the firefighting crews. The much needed hydration, cooling and medical evaluation provided by the donations and CERT volunteers was especially appreciated with ambient air temperatures near 90 degrees when the fire occurred.

•The city of Woodburn is partnering with Marion Polk Food Share that operates the food bank service to reduce the disruption of the valuable community assistance provided at this site.

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