Reiber, Stokes both have firefighting experience
By Ann McCreary
Both Les Stokes and Roy Reiber, candidates for the Okanogan County Fire District 6 commission, bring decades of experience in local firefighting as volunteers and instructors.
In the only contested race for local elected positions, Twisp resident Stokes is challenging incumbent Reiber for the fire district commission seat, which Reiber has held for 24 years.
In a candidates forum attended by more than 50 people at the Twisp Grange last Tuesday (Oct. 13), Reiber and Stokes responded to questions about their background, a proposed new fire station, volunteer recruitment and potential town annexations, among other fire district issues.
Reiber emphasized his belief that the district needs to build a new fire station to replace the current facility in Winthrop in order to assure the safety of firefighters.
Reiber said he considers the proposed station design and building site on Horizon Flats in Winthrop to be viable, despite voter rejection last year of a tax levy to finance the station and questions raised by community members about the proposed station during the past year.
“We have a reasonable site and a pretty fair plan as far as what is needed,” Reiber said in response to an audience question about whether there are other “affordable options” to the district’s proposal to construct a new station.
The district estimated the fire station as designed would cost $2.4 million; however the lowest bid received earlier this year for the project was $3.6 million.
“I can’t imagine we can safely do anything but provide our firefighters with a different facility [than the Winthrop station]. I have no clue why what we [commissioners] have approved is not acceptable,” Reiber said. “It was the most painful thing when we found out we had not educated the community about the need for a new fire hall.”
He added, “We probably can bring this thing down to a reasonable amount.”
Stokes said the fire district needs to reconsider both the design and location of the proposed new fire station. A less-expensive station could be designed “for future expansion,” he said. “Thirty years ago we never conceived we’d have pumpers the size we do now.”
Stokes said the commission needs to consider whether the property on Horizon Flats, purchased by the district several years ago, is the best location for a new station for the long term, saying it may increase response time and many calls are for the southern part of the valley. “This one we need to get right,” he said.
Stokes said one of his priorities would be establishing a citizen advisory committee that would advise the commission on a new fire station and other district matters.
“We could use the advisory committee to get it down in price so people don’t have sticker shock,” Stokes said. Stokes said he envisions an advisory committee of 10-12 members that would be open to residents in the fire district and include some volunteer firefighters.
“The advisory committee would report findings to commissioners, who would bring up questions to look into,” Stokes said.
While the idea of such a committee has been suggested by some citizens and discussed by the district commissioners, “it hasn’t been established yet that there would be an advisory committee,” Reiber said. “I favor something more public than a small number of people meeting.”
He said he’d rather get feedback through something like public focus groups, “where everybody can show up and express what they feel.”
Both candidates agreed on the need to recruit additional volunteers and to retain firefighters once they join the district.
“We get most of our quality volunteers by word-of-mouth,” Reiber said. “I’m not sure there’s a real solution, but we need to keep in front of the community,” he said.
“Once we get them we have to treat them well and give them good training so they can be proud,” he said. He said the district cultivates a “family atmosphere that is a very positive thing” for its volunteers.
Stokes suggested “working with schools and civic groups” to recruit volunteers. “We need to look at special skills and think out of the box,” he said.
“I want to be available to the volunteers, from the most senior to the newcomers. I want to talk with firefighters personally. The volunteers are not employees, they are taxpayers who are giving a lot extra to the community,” Stokes said.
Stokes suggested having some volunteers who are trained specifically to fight wildfire and drive equipment, rather than requiring every volunteer to go through the more extensive training required to fight structure fires.
“The greatest threat we face in this day and age is wildland fire,” Stokes said. “I would like to see us have more emphasis on training people to help with brush fire and bolster manpower. That frees up people trained for structure fires.”
“I disagree,” said Reiber, saying all district firefighters should be trained to fight structure fires. “We had three structure fires within three days last winter.”
The candidates said they support the idea of Twisp and Winthrop annexing into the district, rather than continuing to contract with District 6 for fire protection. The annexation process would need to be initiated by the towns and approved by voters in the towns and the district.
“It would solve so many things,” Reiber said. “Once the towns are annexed everybody would pay the same [tax] rate and there would not be [contract] bargaining every four or five years with all the hard feelings.”
“I have been a proponent of it [annexation] for quite some time. I can help see it’s done fairly so no one comes out on the short end,” Stokes said. He proposed restructuring the three-person District 6 commission after annexation.
“I would favor a five-person commission apportioned throughout the district,” with one commissioner from each town, Stokes said.
Asked their opinion on the number of paid staff — five people — employed by the district, Stokes said “the fact that we have as many as we do is a little mind-boggling.”
With many volunteers unable to leave jobs in the daytime to respond to fires, Reiber said, the full-time firefighters are “a valuable asset” in providing quick response. “I would hate to see it [staffing] reduced.”
Reiber has been involved with District 6 for 28 years as a volunteer firefighter, assistant chief, department captain, and 24 years as a commissioner. He also worked as an EMT for Aero Methow Rescue Service for 27 years. He has taught a variety of firefighting courses, vehicle extrication, first aid and CPR.
“I’ve got a firefighter’s heart, they tell me,” he told the audience at the candidates forum. “If I’m elected as your commissioner you know what you’ve got. I’ve got a passion for this valley and will never knowingly let you down. In future commission meetings I will try to keep my wayward words under control.”
Stokes was a firefighter for about 28 years for the Twisp fire department and District 6, and was an instructor for courses that included first responder training and emergency vehicle accident prevention. He was an EMT for Aero Methow for six years and served a term on the Twisp Town Council. In recent years he has worked as a contractor on fires, driving heavy equipment.
“I was asked to run for this position,” Stokes said. “I want to be a commissioner because I want to see representation. I’m looking to be a voice for the people in the valley and for the volunteers.”