CANNON BEACH — After 40 years with the Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District, Chief Cleve Rooper will retire Jan. 1.

Mike Balzer, a Cannon Beach police officer and a volunteer with the fire district for nearly 30 years, will become the new chief.

Rooper, 63, who is the district’s first paid fire chief, was a plumber when he volunteered for the fire department in 1971.

 “A couple of friends were involved in the department, and they encouraged me to try it,” Rooper recalled. “It seemed to be a good fit.”

Besides the excitement of fighting fires and helping people, Rooper said he enjoyed being part of a team.

He worked his way through the ranks, from firefighter, to lieutenant, captain and assistant chief. After Jon Moon retired as volunteer chief, Rooper became the new volunteer chief for three years before finally becoming a paid chief in 1989.

“When we started, there were a lot of fires – at least one good fire a month, maybe more,” Rooper said.

In those days, many Cannon Beach houses may not have had any heating systems other than wood-burning fireplaces, and if they had gone untended, they could catch fire.

“September fires, with the east wind blowing, were pretty common,” Rooper said.

He also recalled the fire that started when a young man used gasoline to light a blaze in a fireplace.

A fire on the north end of Cannon Beach Dec. 18, 2000 was among the most memorable for Rooper. A leaking propane tank in a home under construction exploded and caught some lumber in the house on fire. Other propane tanks exploded, and a natural gas line burned away from the meter, exposing fuel.

 Three houses were destroyed and two more were damaged. Rooper worried that if a wind started along the Oak Street hill where the houses stood, many of the houses along Chapman Point would be engulfed in flames.

The loss was estimated at more than $1 million. A Cannon Beach firefighter suffered a broken ankle, but that was the only injury.

At the time, Rooper called the fire the “worst I have ever seen” in terms of the dollar amount.

In addition to a station in Cannon Beach, the district, which is separate from the city of Cannon Beach and operates with its own tax base, operates a station in Arch Cape.

As with many instances, in the county, the fire district often is assisted by other districts, including Seaside, Gearhart and Hamlet. The U.S. Coast Guard helps with cliff and water rescues.

“They have always been great partners,” Rooper said.

Throughout the years, state fire training requirements have increased to the point where volunteers receive the same training that paid firefighters have.

“I started fighting fires the first day I was here,” Rooper said. “I started by the seat of my pants. Now, it takes lots and lots of hours of training before a volunteer can get the first firefighting certificate” indicating that the firefighter knows how to fight fires safely.

Those who want to add emergency medical services to their training, must take college classes and undergo state and federal testing for certificates. Firefighters can also train for high-angle rescue teams and hazard materials removal teams as well.

The district has 25 volunteers and two paid staff members – Rooper and training officer Matt Gardner. But, like Rooper, who managed the DeTemple Co. branch office when he was a volunteer, most of the volunteers have at least one job as well as families. The district, Rooper said, could always use more volunteers.

Fire Board Chairman Al Aya said the district will miss Rooper.

“It takes a lot of thought and good judgment as well as experience” to run the district, Aya said.

“People don’t realize what it takes,” he said. “When there’s a fire or an emergency, they expect the red trucks and the volunteers to come and take care of it. They don’t realize what’s behind that. The number of hours, training and paper work is mind-numbing.”

Aya said the board agreed to offer Balzer a two-year contract as the new chief during a special meeting this month. He will be paid $65,000 annually.

Balzer will leave the Cannon Beach Police Department, where he has been an officer since 1999, and begin training under Rooper Oct. 1. A lieutenant in the district now, Balzer will take over as chief Jan. 1.

“We are very, very fortunate to have Mike,” Aya said. “He has been an absolutely first-class volunteer. He understands how to work with volunteers. When his hiring was announced, another fire officer in the district thanked me. He’s one of their own.”

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