CONWAY — Southwest Skagit County is different today than it was when new Fire District 3 Chief Chad DeVlieger grew up in the area.
The makeup of fire district volunteers has changed, too, said district Commissioner Matt Stratton.
“It’s getting harder and harder for us to find volunteers these days, especially during the daytime because most people aren’t farmers anymore,” he said. “That’s how it used to be in Conway out here, is most people were farmers and they could volunteer and leave their fields if there was a fire, and that isn’t the case anymore.”
DeVlieger was once one of those farm-based volunteers, joining the Fire District 3 crew as a 16-year-old. He volunteered alongside his father, who runs JDV Farms Incorporated.
“Back then you could join when you were technically underage for most things when your legal guardian was on. ... It was kind of fun,” DeVlieger said.
Now 45 years old and with 22 years as a professional firefighter in Woodinville under his belt, DeVlieger has returned to where he first witnessed firefighting and emergency response in action.
“I started riding the trucks with my dad when he was a volunteer when I was like 5, so I kind of grew up in the fire station and going on calls,” he said.
DeVlieger’s job now, as the district’s first full-time chief, is to help modernize the district.
Long-term goals include upgrading the district’s fire stations, replacing its equipment and increasing its staffing — an expensive combination that will mean asking voters for financial support through their fire district levy.
“We need to increase our funding and focus on the future,” Stratton said.
The district’s Conway station that was built in the 1970s is in need of repairs, and the district’s fleet of fire engines, ambulances and other equipment need to be put into a rotation where they can be replaced.
The district also needs to work toward establishing more paid positions to ensure its growing number of calls are adequately staffed.
“I’m excited to try to meet the challenges and move the fire district in a good direction,” DeVlieger said. “For me, the fire service has always been a three-legged stool: You need good people to respond to alarms, the people need a good, reliable way to get to the location of the alarms, and then when they get there they need good equipment to respond to the alarms.”
District 3 serves about 41 square miles from the southern city limits of Mount Vernon to the county’s border with Snohomish County, including Fir Island, 11 miles of Interstate 5, 10 miles of BNSF Railway tracks, 10 miles of the Olympic Pipeline and a network of dikes and levees. It’s one of 19 such districts in the county.
Stratton said the district has about 30 registered volunteers and a core group of about 15. It’s getting hard to find community members able to invest time in the sometimes dangerous positions outside of their regular jobs.
“Unfortunately our numbers are dwindling,” Stratton said. “Volunteers have real careers. They have to put food on their tables.”
Meanwhile, the number of emergency calls to the district has grown significantly.
DeVlieger said since the 1990s calls have more than doubled. And Stratton said the number of calls increased 23% from 2020 to 2021.
“We have some challenges to try to build some daytime response and make sure our equipment is good to go,” DeVlieger said. “I’m really happy to jump into the chief job and help lead them in the years to come.”