IN CASE OF FIRE...
MEDICAL SPRINGS Folks out here say they're from Medical Springs, but go looking for the community and you might have trouble.
Head out Highway 203 from Union. Fourteen miles out, there's Summit, denoted by a green-and-white highway sign. Deep woods extend from both sides of the curving highway.
Within a few miles, the forests are retreating, making way for pastures and open grazing land. Small homesteads start appearing, but the feeling is that you are a long way from just about anything.
Almost 20 miles into the journey, sharp eyes will spot the nearly level area to the east that once was part of the yards for the Pondosa mill. Only locals, though, can really point out where the once-going-operation was. Today, a roadside sign points the way to "Pondosa Homesites" there aren't any homes yet, but the stunning views and eight- to 10-acre sites are bound to attract those dreaming of rural living.
At the heart of the community is the Medical Springs store, operated by Bob and Jean Bennett, where postcards showing the old Pondosa mill can be purchased, along with basic survival foodstuffs, and wooden floors creak underfoot.
The land continues southward, turning to treeless ripples of dryland grazing, sagebrush here and there, posts with crossbeams indicating there might be a homestead over a ridge and out of site.
This is the land that is now the Medical Springs Rural Fire Protection District, 120 square miles of homes and often livelihoods for 60 families.
There's plenty of room out here to be good neighbors, but it is also a long way from emergency help.
Jim and Gerry Carter built a home off, and up, from the highway two years ago after living many years in Alaska. A few head of cattle and a group of adopted wild horses call the Carters' place home.
When the Carters went to insure their new home, they learned they weren't in a fire protection district and that made rates higher.
"We're not in a fire district now, and never were," Carter said.
The Carters thought it was time to do something. Gerry had been a police dispatcher in the past, Jim had been a volunteer firefighter in Cordova and in Willow, Alaska.
So Carter started talking to his neighbors about organizing a fire district. He learned that Aloha Lay had worked on the same idea about five years ago after Nathan Lay's home near Medical Springs burned the last fire anyone in the area can really remember, other than a pickup fire last summer.
At that fire, Jim Carter recalls, "The only vehicle able to respond was a state forestry rig."
"We formed the district last June," Carter says, adding that although the district includes parts of both Baker and Union counties, the paperwork was dealt with in Baker County.
Through the Baker County clerk, the formal recognition was also completed in Union County.
Most of the work of organizing a volunteer fire department is being done at the Carters' kitchen table. That's also the place most fire department meetings are happening.
But that won't last long.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant will be arriving soon to help build the fire hall, along with a helipad nearby.
The Bennetts have donated two acres of land at the Pondosa Homesites to be the site of the new fire hall. More donated services leveled the land. Equipment, including trucks, have been donated and just need some repairs to be ready to roll, and 11 area residents have, during the winter, completed the two weekends of training needed to be certified as basic firefighters.
"All 11 of us went," Carter says of the Feb. 15 burn-to-learn training in Baker City. Eight of the 11 volunteers also trained in La Grande, while three took training in Baker City.
Carter himself is serving as acting chief of the new fire department also know as Station 36 while Glen Honsvick, Glen Honsvick III, David Hays, Bob Bennett, Jim and Lori Wirth, Chip Jones, Holly Gustafson, Phil Whitley and Orrin Lay round out the department.
And more volunteers are getting ready to train as Medical Springs' emergency first responders, Carter added. Ten people have signed up for the first basic responder class, which might happen at the end of March or in April.
Thinking over the work of the last two years to organize the volunteer department, the Carters don't seem to count the costs of time and energy.
A decision was made early on to not go for formation of the district by vote, thus creating a taxing district. Instead, the Medical Springs Rural Fire District offers subscriptions, at $100 per year, for coverage. The amount, Carter said, is about what area residents should save on their property insurance once the district receives an insurance rating.
District residents will have to pay $250 the first year they subscribe, now or in the future, Carter said, with $150 of that going toward the department's building fund. Judy Whitley, the department's secretary/treasurer, is keeping track of who has paid. More than 50 percent of the potential subscribers have already paid, Carter added.
"We want to be fair to everyone," Gerry Carter said.
The district, Jim Carter said, has been getting help wherever it can. Baker City has donated some turnouts, and more may be coming from La Grande. Union Fire Chief Bill Hooker has been giving tips and guidance. A Forest Service grant has been used to purchase two sets of turnouts. La Grande Rural Fire District Chief Ray Hamann has helped the new district set up operating procedures.
A 1978 Seagrave engine, a piece of federal excess equipment, is already in town but needs some engine work, while another vehicle needs some brake repair.
"Both will be on-line this summer," Carter promises.
"The City of Baker has been real helpful" filling the volunteers' air bottles and donating excess equipment, Carter says.
"The biggest challenge was getting a commitment from the community; and finding people willing to take the time to get trained.
"I think we have a good, solid commitment and people waiting to see it happen. There's been quite a bit of good positive response.
"Once the district gets up and going, then I think the wish list is for an ambulance."
Neighbors, regardless of distance, can do anything by working together. And Carter waves at every neighbor driving by.