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By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

They respond to wildfires.

And chimney collapses.

And fatal fires.

And suspected cases of arson.

But within two years, the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office may be decimated, perhaps able to do little more than check new buildings, if that.

According to reports last week, the fire marshal's office could lose as much as 80 percent of its $2.8 million fire and life safety budget because of a combination of reasons.

The budgeting woes are expected because of shortfalls at the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, cutbacks among the arson detection work of the Oregon State Police, and the increasing number of bankruptcies of insurance companies.

Whatever the cause, a loss of the services of the fire marshal's office will have an impact in Union County.

"Our interaction with them is almost constant," La Grande Fire Chief Bruce Weimer said.

"They're responsible for checking all the school and state and federal buildings … the university, Heidi Ho preschool, all the schools," Weimer said, explaining that there is a deputy fire marshal based in Pendleton who usually handles duties in Union County.

The state fire marshal's office is also closely aligned with the Oregon State Police, between the agencies, they provide arson investigation services, help determine the cause of home fires and piece together the sequence of events when fatal fires occur.

That expertise has helped La Grande firefighters determine what happened when a chimney collapsed at the Sac Annex, why a young boy wasn't able to escape a burning mobile home, and how space heaters triggered a destructive house fire.

"They do arson investigation in rural areas," Weimer said of the deputy fire marshals. "The deputies and the OSP arson investigators do that — and talk is that the OSP arson investigators will soon be no more."

It's not, Weimer stressed, as if the services of the fire marshal's office wouldn't be covered.

The deputy fire marshals, Weimer noted, already are spread "pretty thin." If the outlying offices are reduced more, or even closed, "we'll have to pick up the slack."

Weimer notes that firefighters across Oregon have to meet standards of training set by the Bureau of Public Safety Standards and Training, and those are unlikely to change.

Initially, the impact of the loss of the State Fire Marshal's Office would be that "little departments will have to rely on their own training," rather than on trainings regularly offered by that office.

Currently, the Pendleton fire marshal's office presents training sessions in five or six Eastern Oregon counties. Those sessions often offer local firefighters information and experience gained by others who deal with certain issues regularly.

But La Grande and Union County are at least in a better position if state services are lost than some other areas.

For example, the La Grande Fire Department already has the service of Emmett Cornford, who has the state certification to help certify volunteer firefighters in the area.

La Grande also schedules some firefighter trainings locally and extends open invitations to nearby fire departments, Weimer said. "We don't charge them other than a little bit for materials," he said. "We just may have a few more people in the class.

And the La Grande department, Weimer noted, already has two people in training to investigate suspicious fires.

What will be lost, though, is experience.

"We look at maybe 10 suspicious fires a year," the chief said. "They look at maybe 10 a month. We rely heavily on them to come in and assist."

While final budget figures aren't in, the direction the state fire marshal's office is taking is clear. The Department of Public Safety Standards and Training's regional office in Cornelius has already been closed and six other positions in the department are being left vacant.

None of the news, Weimer says, bodes well for the prevention and training side of the fire marshal's work.

It just means that local departments will be left on the frontlines.


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