For some Marion County volunteer firefighters, free rent is part of the job

Matthew Stueve’s room has just the essentials: a twin bed, a desk with a computer and a few textbooks.

The 22-year-old’s living quarters look like many college dorm rooms, but Stueve’s residence is less conventional. At any moment, an alarm could ring asking him to put out a brush fire or save someone having a heart attack.

He lives full-time at the Pratum fire station east of Salem on Sunnyview Road, trading volunteer shifts with Marion County Fire District #1 for free rent and training.

The county fire district relies on about 60 volunteers and 70 paid employees to cover 80 square miles of territory, serving 58,000 people in parts of east Salem and much of the farmland east and north of the city.

District leaders hope to add 18 people to their volunteer ranks in 2024.

Stueve’s interest in firefighting started at West Salem High School, where he did the school’s emergency services program. His grades in standard high school classes like chemistry weren’t great, but hands-on learning made the difference.

“The second I was in the EMT and health services and fire classes, straight A’s,” he said.

His father was also a volunteer firefighter. After graduating, Stueve got a job as a wildland firefighter out of the state Forestry Department’s Lyons office and started volunteering for the fire district, responding to calls from home.

When his parents moved out of the Salem area, the choice of living quarters was easy. 

“I would have to either get my own apartment and not afford it or just come live down here, which works way better,” he said.

Volunteer firefighter Matthew Stueve’s room at the Pratum Fire Station on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. His living quarters are similar to a college dorm room, without a roommate. (Rachel Alexandr/Salem Reporter)

Volunteering for the fire district is a common path toward a paid career. Eighteen of the district’s last 24 hires have been former volunteers, said Vincent DeFabis, the district’s volunteer coordinator. 

He’s recruiting for volunteer firefighters, emergency medical services, operations and fire education positions for 2024. More information about the jobs and recruitment process is on the district’s website.

Five of the district’s eight stations are volunteer staffed, while the other three have a mix of paid and volunteer workers. 

Stueve is one of 13 resident volunteers who live at the station, typically while attending school. He has to be on duty 120 hours per month.

Two residents are moving out after being hired by the district, so DeFabis said their rooms will soon be available to new volunteers.

Though the positions are unpaid, they come with benefits including up to $5,250 a year in college tuition reimbursement per year, a cellphone stipend, equipment, life insurance and training.

Stueve said he’s gotten used to the peculiarities of living at a fire station. He has his own cabinet for food and uses the station washer and dryer to do laundry.

His girlfriend and other friends can visit, but only during certain hours, and there are no overnight guests. When he’s not on duty, he’s able to turn down the volume of the station’s alarm system in his room, and said he doesn’t get woken up when calls come in.

The job lets him train and develop his skills, including pursuing an emergency medical technician certification and learning how to operate the fire engine’s pump system, which has more bells and whistles than the pumps on trucks used in wildland firefighting.

Volunteer firefighter Matthew Stueve inspects the pump panel on the fire engine at the Pratum Station. Stueve is one of the resident volunteers at Marion County Fire District #1. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In the summers, he’s often out of the area on wildland crews, which led to him missing two of the biggest fires to hit near Salem in recent years. 

Stueve was deployed to wildfires in southern Oregon during both the Liberty Fire in August, which threatened hundreds of homes in the south Salem hills, and the Vitae Springs Fire the year prior.

Firefighters from across the region, including Marion County, responded to get the vegetation blazes under control, and state air support was needed to drop water on the blaze. Stueve said those fires should be a wake-up call for the need for more resources to address the growing threat of large fires that threaten urban areas.

“This state really needs to think long-term,” he said.

Stueve volunteers more during the wildfire off-season to hit the hours the fire district requires for residents. For now, he prefers wildland, he said, because he gets to be outside and enjoys the camaraderie that comes when firefighters spend days together.

But wildland fires are a young man’s game, Stueve said — at 22, he’s been the oldest firefighter out of his office, and being gone from home for weeks at a time is more challenging with a family.

Volunteering gives him the training he’ll need to move into other fire jobs as his career progresses. It’s a rewarding job, he said.

“You’re showing up on their worst day of their life, probably. And you’re there to make it better,” he said.

The Marion County Fire District #1’s Pratum station is volunteer-staffed (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.