If a wildfire erupted today somewhere in the 1,040-acre Ecola Creek Forest Reserve, or on the 58-acre parcel near the Tolovana Mainline, the volunteers at Cannon Beach Fire and Rescue would have no means to fight it.

The neighboring rural fire protection districts -- in Gearhart, Seaside, Hamlet, Warrenton, Elsie-Vinemaple, Nehalem Bay, Tillamook and elsewhere -- and the Oregon Department of Forestry would immediately send manpower and equipment. With any luck, they would arrive before the flames jump westward across U.S. Highway 101.

Most of these districts would bring their Type 6 engines or "brush trucks," a nimble apparatus with four-wheel drive conveying hundreds of gallons of water with which to contain and extinguish the burn.

Unlike standard fire engines, brush trucks can travel along the bumpy, winding, narrow, logging roads that cut through timber properties, giving the firefighters better access to the hot spots.

But the Cannon Beach district -- the rural fire district responsible for those city-owned forest lands -- would have to wait for help to arrive. At present, the district has no brush truck of its own.

"We just don't have a way to protect (those forest lands), period," said Captain Matt Gardner, of Cannon Beach Fire and Rescue.

But that's about to change.

What in blazes!?

Gardner went before the City Council at its Feb. 11 work session to request a donation from the city that would bring the Cannon Beach firefighters a step closer to buying its own brush truck, something the fire district has never possessed since it was established in 1947.

"We look ill-equipped when we can receive services from six or eight other fire departments, all with the same Type 6 capabilities, and we're the only ones left who have large amounts of forest land in our district" and no way to protect it, Gardner said.

Out of that council work session came a consensus to donate $30,000 from the city.

This amount followed on the heels of the Campbell Group donating $1,000 and the Cannon Beach Volunteer Firefighters Association donating $15,000. Stimson Lumber Company later gave $1,000, city resident Molly Edison provided $100 and the rural fire protection district board approved a donation of up to $60,000 ($49,000 of which is for the chassis alone).

"This has been a long a time coming, and now that it's here, it's very well supported," Gardner said, adding that if everything falls into place, the district will have the brush truck by June, just in time for wildfire season.

The district hopes to secure a brush truck priced between $100,000 and $110,000, outfitted with tools from Cascade Fire Equipment.

If that sounds like a lot of money, consider that a usual fire truck costs around $450,000 and has far less flexibility than a brush truck. Plus, "it's a very minor cost in comparison to 25 to 30 years of protection," Gardner said.

The brush truck that Cannon Beach ultimately chooses is likely to function much like the one the Gearhart Fire Department acquired last September. The Gearhart crew cab seats four personnel, features a 150-foot electronic hose reel, carries five gallons of class A foam, 400 gallons of water and a 135 gallons-per-minute pump.

That truck proved its worth late last month during the four-day wildfires in Arch Cape that torched nearly 300 acres of coastal forest east of U. S. Highway 101, Gardner said.

Forest fires aside, a brush truck would also be used to put out beach fires in dune grass and help out at motor vehicle accidents, fire district Chief Mike Balzer said.

The volunteers at Cannon Beach Fire and Rescue have been learning to use brush trucks as part of their general wildland fire training over the past few years, he added.

It could happen

Although January's North Coast forest fires were a "wake-up call" for Cannon Beach Fire and Rescue, there's always been a need for a brush truck because the town is "built up against the forest, plain and simple," Gearhart Fire Chief Bill Eddy said.

Historically, wildfires have "not been an issue or a worry," Gardner said. "It's all been structural stuff."

Unfortunately, it often takes a high-profile, once- in-a-generation event like the Arch Cape fires to show where preparedness is lacking.

"Everybody was saying, 'Oh, it's never going to happen here. It's too wet. It's the Pacific Northwest. It's on the coast,'" Balzer said. "But (the recent fires showed) that it can happen."

When the city brings more wooded acreage into its domain, that's more territory the fire distract has to protect -- both in terms of watching out for fires within the city's ownership and having the resources to fight fires in adjoining properties owned by private timber companies.

With the brush truck, the fire district will be added to the "conflagration list" -- meaning that when a wildfire is raging on the North Coast, Cannon Beach will be able to offer the same level of support as its fellow fire departments.

"It gives them a tool that is right for the job," Eddy said.

And if it were to happen in Cannon Beach's own backyard, the brush truck would significantly improve the odds of beating back the blaze.

"There are no guarantees, but without it, we don't have a chance," Gardner said, adding that in such an event it could very well be an hour before anyone from the Oregon Department of Forestry is able to arrive.

What worries Gardner the most is the thought of a fire near the Ecola Creek Forest Reserve jumping the highway.

"Now you're talking about lives. You're talking about property. You're talking about homes, very personal life things," he said. "That is absolutely realistic in our case, and if it gets into the city, we're in trouble."

This story originally appeared in Cannon Beach Gazette.

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