In four decades volunteering for Philomath Fire & Rescue, Dave Wiger has averaged 120 calls and drills per year. One year, he did 225 and was also gone for six weeks on fires in the eastern part of the state with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
As one could conclude, a major part of Wiger's life has revolved around responding to emergencies and giving back to the community. He volunteered with Philomath Fire & Rescue for 40 years and 1 month, starting in October 1978 and officially leaving at the end of this month.
Although Wiger, who is now 67, said he’ll miss the involvement, his wife won’t.
“She doesn’t like the pager going off in the middle of the night,” Wiger said with a smile. “My daughter remembers hearing my pager go off when she was a kid. … She remembers the front door slamming and me taking off in the middle of the night.”
Community fire departments rarely see the type of longtime commitment that Philomath has experienced with Wiger.
“Dave’s a constant around here,” said deputy chief Doug Lilja, who has been involved with Philomath Fire & Rescue since the mid-1980s. “He’s always willing and able to help out and really is just very knowledgeable about our apparatus in particular. He just has a nice, even-keeled patience that I’ve always appreciated.”
Through those many calls, there will always be a few that stand out. He said one of the toughest he went on involved a vehicle that slammed into a pickup on Highway 20 at the top of Gellatly Canyon.
“They figured he was doing over 125 mph on the highway and he went sideways on the corner at the top of the hill and went crossways in front of the truck and stopped that diesel truck in 5 feet,” Wiger recalled. “Luckily, the two guys inside had really minor injuries considering the impact that they had gone through. The guy in the car was deceased.”
The diesel truck, occupied by two Newport firefighters, had cans of white paint in the back. Wiger said he never could get the paint out of his turnouts that were later replaced. Engine 232, which within the past few years was donated to Blodgett, still has white paint on its doors from that wreck, he added.
Wiger’s primary duties with Fire & Rescue have been as a pump operator or a tender operator on rural calls. For years, he did medical call rotations with Marcia Gilson and Marta McGovern Philpott.
“We were on a three-week rotation, so we each took a week for about 15 years and responded to all medical calls from home,” he said. “For the first 10 of that, it was in your own personal vehicle with no compensation. Finally, the chief — I think Dale Staib — made one of the old cars available.”
Wiger eventually gave up doing the medical calls, although he would come into the station and stand-by if it appeared the crew may be out for an extended period of time.
Wiger said he first volunteered with the fire department to benefit from the training.
“I worked for the Oregon Department of Forestry and I figured there were some parallels between wildland firefighting and structure firefighting,” Wiger said. “I felt I could bring something to the organization and I felt they could give me something back.”
Wiger has seen seven fire chiefs come and go over the years from Jim Stinson to current chief Tom Miller.
“They’ve always been good crews to work with,” Wiger said. “I can get along with almost anybody pretty well but I think just because we’ve tried to run the volunteer organization as a professional department, I think that’s helped a lot.”
Giving back to the community was instilled in Wiger from a young age. The family was active in the Lutheran church and his father often volunteered to help out with things like plumbing and electrical work.
“That attitude probably came partially just from growing up with my dad,” Wiger said. “But I’ve always felt community service is important, too.”
Besides family influences, Wiger said he grew up in the “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” era. And his volunteering has gone beyond the fire department, such as his involvement with school programs or the 250 hours of work he put in the construction of Philomath Community Library.
Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Wiger grew up in Seattle and earned a two-year degree in forest technology at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington. He made his way to Oregon in 1974.
“My wife’s family was down here and so we were coming down visiting anyway and Salem had a program at the time for entry-level foresters and technicians,” Wiger said in reference to ODF. “You’d come in and take your written exams and they’d put you on a list and then anybody that was hiring would draw off the list.”
About a month before his name would fall off the list, he got a call and came down for the interviewing process. Wiger got the job and started out on an engineering crew in 1974. From 1981 to 1995, Wiger worked in timber sale preparation before switching back to the engineering crew.
Wiger spent his entire 42-year career with ODF on the West Oregon District in the state forests program, retiring about 18 months ago.
Lilja said Fire & Rescue currently has a volunteer force in the upper 30s. A new recruit class just started recently with four individuals in training. Wiger said volunteering for a fire department can be a good way to figure out if it’s a profession that an individual may want to pursue.
“Doing something like this for four or five years gives them an opportunity before they start a career doing it to see if they like it or not,” he said. “A lot of people come in thinking it’s mostly firefighting and in today’s fire department, it’s 70 percent medical calls. So if you don’t like dealing with that, it might not be the best career for you at this point.”
At a recent promotion ceremony, Wiger was recognized with a plaque from the fire district’s volunteer association. In addition, Tender 241 was dedicated to him with his name and years of service appearing on the driver’s door.
“He likes to drive the tenders,” Lilja said. “He’s a good tender operator; they’re big, awkward vehicles. You can always depend on him getting the tender to us.”
Wiger and his wife, who have three children and seven grandchildren, plan to do a little traveling, beginning with a trip to Fort Hood in Texas where a son will be retiring from the Air Force. But his days of responding to a call might not be completely over just yet.
“What I told chief was I'm available if he needs me for a tender operator for the next year or so — whatever they figure how long my training is good for,” he said.