CANNON BEACH - He never thought about being a firefighter when he was a kid. But Matt Gardner has always enjoyed helping people.
As soon as he arrived in Cannon Beach about four years ago, Gardner realized that being a firefighter was what he was meant to do. Being a volunteer firefighter worked out so well, that when the training officer's job opened up six months ago, his fellow volunteers urged him to apply.
Now, he's not only one of two full-time, paid members of the Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District (Chief Cleve Rooper is also paid), and is training to become the district's fire marshal as well.
"I knew when I got here I would join the department," Gardner said. "It offered something bigger than myself. It has always been in my nature to help people out."
Since his arrival, Gardner has fought fires, gone out on medical calls too numerous to count, helped out with cliff rescues and assisted neighboring fire departments in emergencies.
During his first year as a volunteer, Gardner found himself in the middle of a steep, heavily forested road, trying to clear fallen trees during the Great Coastal Gale of 2007. He and his crew were responding to a call that a tree had crashed into a house and come within inches of killing a young man sleeping in an upstairs bedroom.
They finally reached the family and evacuated them, while trees crashed around their cars.
Sometimes, he admitted, he has gone on calls that haven't turned out so well. That, Gardner said, is the most difficult part of his job.
"The hardest thing to deal with is when I go to a call and I want to help somebody, but it's not in their cards. But you deal with that and put 100 percent of your focus on the next person," he said.
Now, in addition to responding to calls, Gardner plans training sessions for the department to meet accreditation standards. Although the firefighters are volunteers, they are required to meet the same standards as paid firefighters, including participating in the same number of training hours.
The department passed its accreditation review in April and will have another in three years. Gardner had just become the training officer then and was happy to observe the accreditation process.
"Without accreditation, we would have to go somewhere else" for fire protection, Gardner said. "It's a big deal. There are a lot of requirements and paperwork."
The department has 24 volunteers, and more always are needed, Gardner said.
"There is no shortage of things to do on calls, whether it's a sprained ankle or a fully involved structure fire."
But those who want to volunteer should be committed to the time required to train and to go on calls. "All of them are required to go through the same process and pass the same tests as paid firefighters," Gardner said.
"Recruiting is difficult for us, but we are actively recruiting," he added. "Just because it's hard doesn't mean we don't do it."
Instead of worrying about how many volunteers the department has, "we focus on the victories" - those who do sign up, Gardner said.
Sometime, he added, he would like to gain more actual experience in fighting structural fires so he can train his crew better. This might require him to spend time in a larger city, where fire departments fight structural fires more often than on the North Coast.
"I want to see it, I want to feel it, I want to know what I'm talking about, and especially know how to safely lead my team when we're presented with fighting a structural fire," Gardner said.
The recent fire at the home owned by Ryan and Stephanie Snyder was unfortunate, Gardner said, but it gave the firefighters experience in fighting a fire both defensively and offensively. They managed to contain it to the front half of the house.
As for his future, Gardner said he's "here for the long haul. I'm absolutely thrilled and privileged to be here; I have no plans to change. It's a great location, a great community, and the job challenges me."
The volunteers, he said, "are second to none," and he asked if he could thank those who help him at station, including Rooper, former training officer Garry Smith "and all my friends at Cannon Beach Fire for supporting me into the role and are still supporting me.
"Everybody's always there," Gardner said.