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As Volunteer Firefighters Age, Efforts Underway to Increase Recruitment and Retention

  The Jordan Volunteer Fire Department added 2 new firefighting engines to its fleet since the Huff Fire. The fire burned around 45,000 acres and led the town to evacuate in September 2020.
Olivia Weitz
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Jordan Volunteer Fire Department added 2 new firefighting engines to its fleet since the Huff Fire. The fire burned around 45,000 acres and led the town to evacuate in September 2020.

Macy Fogle has her hair pulled back in a long braid as she sits in the driver’s seat of a Garfield County pickup truck. She’s learning how to use the firefighting truck’s pump and hose while driving a few miles outside of Jordan where about 400 people live.

After the entire town nearly burned down last year when the 45,000 acre Huff Fire swept through the area, the 20-year-old rancher was among a dozen locals her age who signed up to become volunteer firefighters.

“It was at the moment that I was cutting the fence while moving yearlings out of the land as the fire was chasing them down the hill that I knew that I wanted to be the one to help other people go out there and help them do that when they were as vulnerable as I had felt in that situation,” Fogle says.

But young volunteers like Fogle are the exception, not the rule.

Ray Hageman is the Garfield County Fire Warden. He has spent 38 years as a firefighter and he worries many of the new recruits won’t stick around.

“I figure if I can get 30% it’s worth it, keep pushing forward, keep going. And these young people need to step up cuz some of us old guys are getting old,” Hageman says.

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, in communities with populations of less then 2,500 around 20% of volunteers are under the age of 30. There is not Montana-specific data, but Cory Calnan with the Montana Department of Natural Resources says the volunteer fire force in Montana is aging.

“Volunteer firefighters in Montana are the backbone of how fire protection is provided in Montana,” Calnan says.

Calnan manages DNRC’s relationship with county and rural fire departments and he says over 95 percent of them are staffed by volunteers.

“It is a struggle in all parts of rural Montana. Volunteer departments are on the decline. The time commitments that are required to be a volunteer are definitely high. It’s tough to maintain that. All areas of rural Montana have struggled to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters,” Calnan says.

In 2020, groups in Montana were awarded just over $700,000 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to increase and maintain the number of trained front line firefighters in communities.

DNRC plans to partner with The Montana Fire Chiefs’ Association and the Montana State Volunteer Firefighters Association to use the grant money to compile data on volunteer departments and support a statewide recruitment campaign.

Mikel Robinson with the The Montana State Fire Chiefs’ Association says this grant will help fund a website that will help recruitment efforts and guide people through the steps of becoming a volunteer firefighter.

“People used to walk into departments and volunteer and I just do not think that happens anymore. I think you have to actively recruit,” Robinson says.

Without the ‘backbone’ of volunteers in Montana helping control thousands of fires each season, firefighting efforts would end up costing taxpayers. DNRC estimates if it had to do the job done by volunteer firefighters, it could cost about 50 million dollars a year.

There are an estimated 10,000 volunteer firefighters statewide. With the grant, firefighting associations are seeking to increase the number of volunteer firefighters in Montana by 20% over the next five years.

Back in the town of Jordan, Fire Chief Hageman says that his new firefighting recruits have consistently been there to put out fires in Garfield County this summer, but many are heading off to jobs and back to school soon.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.