Firefighting runs in Aaron Harris’ blood.
His parents, Chuck and Fran, were founding members of Adair Rural Fire & Rescue when it started in 1974, two years before the small Benton County community of Adair Village even incorporated.
Chuck Harris became the volunteer department’s second chief in 1990, when he took over from Dennis Haney.
Now it’s Aaron Harris’ turn.
In an emotional ceremony at the firehouse Wednesday night, the younger Harris was sworn in as fire chief by Dick Green, board president of the Adair Rural Fire Protection District, to a standing ovation from the 50 or so people in attendance. Then the new chief’s wife and father pinned the insignia of office on either side of his shirt collar.
Aaron Harris thanked the board for selecting him. He thanked his parents for encouraging his interest in firefighting. And he thanked the audience — most of them current or former firefighters or family members — for their support.
“According to my mother,” he told them, “I went on my first (fire) call when she was four months pregnant, so I, too, am a founding member.”
Bitten by the fire bug
Chuck Harris was working as an engineer for Evans Products in Corvallis when he joined the fledgling volunteer fire department in Adair Village, then an unincorporated community of fewer than 600 people.
He liked the work so much that he quit his engineering job a few years later and signed on with the Albany Fire Department. He put in 33 years with the department, retiring as a station lieutenant in 2013, but he never stopped volunteering with Adair Rural Fire and Rescue.
Now 72, the former chief will retain the rank of captain and stay on as district administrator under his son, taking care of such matters as purchasing and equipment maintenance. And he’ll still go out on fire calls on a fill-in basis.
“This is a situation really where I found a hobby I could make money at,” Harris said. “How does it get any better than that?”
In his 29-year stint as chief, Harris has been instrumental in building and modernizing Adair Rural Fire and Rescue, according to Green. In his remarks at Wednesday’s ceremony, the fire district board president credited the retiring chief with the construction of a substation on Soap Creek Road, the acquisition of a wide array of new equipment, and lining up funding for a seismic retrofit of the main fire station — all of which has contributed to improved fire ratings and lower insurance rates for the community.
“As a fire chief,” Green said, “he gets the grants.”
Since joining the fire service back in 1974, Harris said, he’s seen significant changes in fires and the way they’re fought.
One big change is the widespread use of plastics in furniture, building fixtures, automobile components and other materials typically encountered in responding to fires.
“When I started in the fire service, almost everything was just wood or paper or a fuel that wasn’t going to have explosiveness or give off fumes,” he said. “(Plastic) melts to a fuel, and when it’s a fuel it burns just like gasoline or diesel.”
Firefighting gear has had to adapt to those changing conditions, he added.
Instead of just long coats, high boots and helmets without face shields, today’s firefighters turn out in multilayered protective clothing designed to keep out everything from heat and moisture to bloodborne pathogens. Helmets with face shields are standard issue, breathing apparatus is worn on almost all structure fires, gas monitors are used to check oxygen and carbon monoxide levels, and even small departments like Adair have access to thermal imaging cameras and other sophisticated technology.
It’s all part of a new emphasis on firefighter safety in a changing world, Harris said.
“Forty-five years ago, I never would have thought that part of our turnout clothing would be a bulletproof vest,” he said.
“Because of the necessity of your medical personnel to respond to something like an active shooter, to have them wear anything less than law enforcement personnel would be almost criminal.”
A winding road
Even though Aaron Harris got an early start on his firefighting career, he took a circuitous path to get where he is now.
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He started volunteering with Adair Rural Fire and Rescue at the age of 14.
“It was exciting,” recalled Harris, now 44. “And out here in Adair Village in 1988, there wasn’t a whole lot to do for a 14-year-old.”
He went into his first burning building at age 16 as part of a training exercise, with his dad as instructor. Around the same time he responded to a brush fire at the E.E. Wilson Wildlife Refuge just north of town that blew up to more than 400 acres before it was contained.
“I was in high school at the time,” he remembered. “I actually left track practice to go to the fire.”
Harris already had an interest in a fire service career, but he put those plans on hold at the age of 17 to join the Navy, serving from 1992 to 1999 before moving back to the mid-valley and resuming work toward a firefighting career. He landed a spot as a resident intern at the Corvallis Fire Department’s rural Station 6 on Lewisburg Road. Next he enrolled at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, working with the Salem and Marion County fire departments and earning associate’s degrees in fire science and paramedic technology.
But in 2003 he was recalled to active duty by the Navy, serving as a medical corpsman in Iraq.
His plans changed yet again when he got married. His wife, Kate, was a pilot in the Air Force, and for the next decade the couple moved frequently as they followed her military career to postings in Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Alaska.
“In essence, I put firefighting on hold for 10 years,” Harris said.
Still, he continued working toward his goal with a focus on medical training. He worked as a paramedic in Georgia and went back to school in Oklahoma, where he earned a nursing degree.
Meanwhile, he and his wife started a family. Son Marcus is now 5 years old, and the couple’s two younger children both have birthdays this week — daughter Lillian is turning 4, and son Camden is turning 1.
After Kate got out of the Air Force in 2014, the couple moved back to Oregon. Harris got a job as an emergency room nurse at Samaritan Albany General Hospital and, at long last, returned to his firefighting roots as a volunteer with Adair Rural Fire and Rescue.
“I kind of knew my end game would be here,” he said.
Growth and change
The Adair Rural Fire Protection District covers 18 square miles, from the vicinity of Peavy Arboretum in the south to the Polk County line in the north and from North Albany in the east to Oregon State University’s sprawling McDonald-Dunn Forest in the west. It has an annual budget of almost $300,000, funded by property taxes.
Adair Rural Fire and Rescue currently has 16 active firefighters. Two positions — chief and district administrator, held by Aaron and Chuck Harris — pay part-time salaries, but everyone else serves on a strictly volunteer basis.
The department’s fleet includes two fire engines with 1,000-gallon water tanks, a 3,000-gallon water tender, three brush rigs with 400-gallon tanks and one rescue rig that serves as an ambulance.
Firefighters gather on Wednesday nights for regular briefings and training sessions. Everyone is on call for fire alarms, and many are cross-trained to respond to medical emergencies.
Adair Village has grown substantially since its volunteer fire service was created in 1974, from fewer than 600 residents to a little over 1,000 today, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Now it’s poised to grow even more. The city expanded its urban growth boundary in 2007 and annexed 127 acres in 2010. Two new subdivisions are in the works that could add more than 800 new homes.
Aaron Harris says it will be a challenge to recruit enough firefighters to keep pace with that growth, but he believes he’s up to the challenge.
And he’s not worried about following in his father’s footsteps.
“I’ve always said I’m just going to make my own,” he said. “He’s left me with a great foundation.”
As for his father, the former chief said he has no qualms about taking orders from his son, who now outranks him.
“I’ve had younger people than him giving me orders before,” Chuck Harris said. “It’s not a big deal.”