The little station that could
South Oroville’s El Medio Fire District shows how to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less
At first glance, Rusty Ohlhausen might not seem like a man to whom the members of an entire community would entrust their lives. Sure, he’s a six-footer, but his midsection might be more conspicuous than his height. He smokes, wears glasses and walks at a leisurely pace. He’s amiable, not particularly outspoken or commanding.
Firefighting is a young man’s job. Rusty Ohlhausen is 59.
Looks can be deceiving, however. The El Medio fire chief doesn’t just sit behind a desk all day. (If he did, he’d develop claustrophobia—quarters are cramped in the district’s sole station.) With a paper-thin budget and a diverse area to cover 24/7, El Medio can’t afford a hands-off administrator.
Besides, that’s not his nature anyway. Ohlhausen has been a South Oroville fixture for decades. He takes an active role in the area he serves: unincorporated neighborhoods bordered by Wyandotte Avenue, Lower Wyandotte Road, Ophir Avenue and the railroad tracks that run parallel to Highway 70.
He grew up in the area and lived within the district’s boundaries until five years ago, when he married his wife, Teresa, and the couple settled in her home just outside the El Medio boundaries. His dedication hasn’t waned. Through good times and bad—including a period when El Medio went with a volunteer chief and he had to look for work elsewhere—Ohlhausen has done whatever he can to serve his community.
The El Medio station isn’t just a place to park fire trucks and house firefighters. It’s a safe house for victims of domestic violence and gang wars. It’s a rehearsal space for dance troupes, a meeting place for community groups, a dining hall for the local rescue mission, and a site for rummage sales, a community garden and a weekly farmers’ market.
If someone asks, Ohlhausen says yes, and his crew graciously complies.
“You look at him, and he’s a bit slow, but his heart is right out there,” said Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, who represents the greater Oroville area and lives within the El Medio district. “What more can a guy do than give up his salary? He probably wouldn’t tell you, but he’s even forgone his own salary [at times] to keep the place afloat. He loves the community and believes in an independent fire district.
“Representing this area, someday I think it will be annexed by the city of Oroville,” Connelly added, “but I hope the fire station stands alone because it’s so important to this community.”
And, at a time when the issue of firefighters’ generous salaries and benefits has become a flash point in other communities’ budget discussions, El Medio shows what a district can do on a shoestring, when its employees care as much about the people they serve as they do about money.
The El Medio Fire District dates to 1925, when residents established an all-volunteer service. At its peak, the Southside Fire Department (as it originally was known) boasted upward of 30 volunteers who, Ohlhausen said, actually had to pay dues in order to serve. Now, because of state regulations, volunteer firefighting is mostly a thing of the past.
Depending on the land survey and calculations you consult, the district encompasses somewhere between two and seven square miles of residential, commercial and wildland properties. “El Medio” translates from Spanish as “the middle” or “the center”; though locally it is pronounced “El Me-DAY-o,” not “El MAY-dio” as it would be said in Spanish, and the firehouse is located in the northern part of the district, the name is fitting because it has become a true central focal point.
Virginia Brazil-Barnes has lived in the district since 1955. Her Brownie troop met at the station’s previous location on Spencer Avenue, and she fondly recalls how firefighters would sound the siren each day at noon to let the neighborhood know the time.
“People come to the firehouse for all kinds of reasons,” said Brazil-Barnes, who for the past 20 years has worked part-time as district secretary. “Sometimes they’ll come with questions that have nothing to do with the Fire Department, but these guys are the men with all the answers. They do so much: the medical aid that saves [residents] from having to call an ambulance, cleaning around fire hydrants, weed-eating—all kinds of things.
“It’s just the center of everything. El Medio has just always been El Medio. Any time I tell people I work for El Medio, everybody knows somebody who works here. It’s a fixture—a community fixture.”
Ohlhausen embraces the department’s multidimensional role, which had all but gone by the wayside when he joined El Medio as a volunteer in 1968.
“It used to be, when they had the old chiefs here, this was just a fire station—that’s it,” he said. “When I was coming up the ranks, people would come in and ask to meet here, and they’d be told, ‘Go down to the Municipal Auditorium.’ I didn’t like that.
“So, when I became chief, I turned that around. This department is funded by the people of this district, so we’re going to serve the people of this district. If people come to me with a request, we’ll clear our engine room out, clean it up and do what we gotta do.”
Ohlhausen’s crew did that twice during Thanksgiving week. That Monday, the Oroville Rescue Mission held its annual turkey giveaway in the station. Two evenings later, the mission returned for a Thanksgiving dinner. “Well over 1,000 people came through this firehouse,” Ohlhausen said.
Every Thursday, the Fire House Farmers Market sets up shop in the station parking lot. (See sidebar, page 22.) Richard Roth, executive director of cChaos, a collective that also runs a weekly market in Chico’s Chapman neighborhood, was seeking a site in Oroville when a county official told him, “You need to talk to Rusty.”
That was 2 1/2 years ago; now, cChaos also has a community garden there, tended by Terry Tillman, manager of the Fire House Farmers Market.
“[If] you play ball with Rusty, he’s really good,” Tillman said. “Anything he can help you to do, he’ll do, no doubt about that.”
Sometime in the past decade—Ohlhausen doesn’t recall the exact year—then-Sheriff Leroy Wood asked if the fire station could serve as a designated safe house for South Oroville. Naturally, Ohlhausen agreed. Parents can surrender unwanted newborn babies with no questions asked, he said, and “if anyone thinks they’re threatened or in trouble, they can come here and be safe.” Just recently, after a shooting across the street from the station, a victim crawled up to the front door and firefighters brought him inside.
By opening the door to anyone in need, Ohlhausen puts himself, his crew and the department in jeopardy. The possibility of adverse consequences—from gang retaliation and violent spouses to potential slip-and-fall lawsuits—would make most bureaucrats blanch.
Why incur the risks?
“Because we’re here to serve the people,” the chief said firmly. “We have a good insurance company that serves us well. We’ve never been bothered by gangs—they know we will show up in a timely manner to help them, not to arrest them. If someone wants to shoot their way in, they’re going to have to shoot us. Just because somebody may have a really bad day, we’re gonna do what we’re gonna do.”
El Medio’s loyalty hasn’t gone unrewarded. Two years ago, when the state raided the district’s coffers to plug its own budget holes, the firehouse nearly had to close. Residents responded by overwhelmingly approving Measure B, which nearly doubled their assessment from $60 to $118 per year for properties under one acre and adding per-acre surcharges on larger parcels.
South Oroville is, on the whole, a low-income area where absentee landowners are common. On four previous occasions, El Medio requested increases and got denied each time. In 2008, Ohlhausen and his firefighters went door to door to make their case, and Measure B passed with 72.3 percent of the vote.
“Most of the people didn’t know why we wanted to raise our assessment,” Ohlhausen said. “After we explained it to them, as it came down to voting day, overwhelmingly they didn’t want us to go away.”
Even with the additional funding, El Medio is far from flush. The entire budget—salaries, benefits, equipment, fuel, maintenance, etc.—is just $354,000. Full-time firefighters make only $8.50 an hour, and many have to supplement their incomes by moonlighting as paramedics for local ambulance services. By comparison, an entry-level firefighter for the city of Oroville earns $15.20 an hour, and Chico firefighters start at $18.37 an hour.
“I would love to pay ’em more—what they’re worth—but we don’t have it,” Ohlhausen said. In fact, he had to lay off three firefighters this year, reducing El Medio’s staff to nine.
The chief accepts that many firefighters he hires “use this as a stepping stone.” In baseball parlance, Ohlhausen is a rookie-league manager, working with young prospects until they move up the ladder to a higher-level team; “but at least I get the chance to get them first and point them in the right direction.”
Still, some firefighters stay.
Take Scott Marglin, an Oroville native whose family moved to Chico, where he still resides. Marglin went on ride-alongs with El Medio while a volunteer with the Chico Fire Department. Six years ago, El Medio hired him as a seasonal firefighter; he continued to attend Chico State University, got hired full-time, then (like his chief) worked his way up the ranks.
Marglin, now one of El Medio’s two fire captains, oversees training and operations, which includes organizing the department’s Intern Academy. He considered employment in other departments, he said, “but I like it here.”
He continued: “The guys here are great—that’s a lot of the reason why guys don’t leave, because we all get along so well; we’re all great friends. We work really well with our chief; you don’t really find that at a lot of places. There are pros and cons to having your boss here all the time, but …
“We’re really busy here. We have a lot of kids who come to us for experience, and we put them through an engaging program that a lot of departments don’t offer. For young firefighters, it’s so tough to get in the door.”
That’s why, despite the low pay, El Medio doesn’t have trouble filling vacancies. The topographic and cultural diversity within the district exposes firefighters to a broad spectrum of scenarios: wildfires, structure fires, automobile accidents, swift-water rescues and more. El Medio has the second-busiest fire station in Butte County, and “it’s a constantly changing environment on our calls,” Ohlhausen said.
Having the equipment to respond to such calls requires a lot of grant writing and fundraising. Until two years ago, El Medio used a fire engine it acquired in 1975 for just $1, thanks to a federal Housing and Urban Development grant. The district was forced to get a new engine when the cost of repairs exceeded the cost of a lease-purchase agreement.
Another vehicle cost nothing. When Ohlhausen learned the U.S. Forest Service was giving away surplus trucks, he applied. The one promised El Medio nearly got loaded onto a ship bound for Guam, but a timely call got it redirected to Oroville. Red paint covered green, and now it’s part of El Medio’s small fleet.
Thanks to grants and savvy shopping, El Medio acquired a $40,000 exhaust-redirection system for $2,000, a $63,000 air trailer for $2,000, and $109,000 worth of breathing equipment for $10,900.
The current need is structural: the roof. El Medio doesn’t have the $40,000 required to replace it. Ohlhausen secured a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it requires a $20,000 match. Businesses and other community members so far have stepped up to the tune of $16,000. “We still have a few things up our sleeves,” he said, “but if anyone wants to donate …”
The future of El Medio remains unclear. Two years ago, while running for Oroville City Council, former Oroville Fire Chief Dave Pittman renewed calls for the annexation of South Oroville. He got elected, but so far he has not pushed the agenda. (Pittman did not respond to e-mail and phone messages left at City Hall seeking comment for this story.)
“I have heard since the day I started here that the city wants to annex us—I’ve heard that for 30 years,” Ohlhausen said. “Dave Pittman, as an ex-fire chief, knows what it’s going to cost [for the city to provide services], so why he was preaching that, I don’t know.
“If annexation was to take place, this fire department would go away. Whether the city would staff an engine out here, I have no idea; with the call volume the city has, people would have to wait a while for a truck to come out.”
As Measure B demonstrated, residents value their fire station. Connelly marvels at how the firefighters “know where you live and know you by name”—not just the county supervisor, but his neighbors as well. “When you have a large district, there’s anonymity,” he said; in El Medio, there’s familiarity.
Tillman can attest to that. The Fire House Farmers Market manager once lived within the El Medio district. He’s now an Oroville city resident, yet he spends a lot of time at the station.
“This firehouse means a lot to me because this firehouse has saved my life a couple times,” Tillman said. “I wasn’t always in the position I am in now; I’m a recovering addict, been clean five years. When they made house calls for me, I might not have made it if it wasn’t for this firehouse.
“Plus it’s always been a community-outreach place where we could get food, different things we might need, knowing the firefighters would help us. It’s been quite an inspiration to me. That’s one reason why I came back to work the farmers’ market: to give back to the community where they’ve always cared for me.”
People like Tillman are why Ohlhausen hasn’t left for greener pastures. He certainly had cause: In 2001, the fire district board laid him off in order to offset a budget shortfall. Ohlhausen found work as a lookout for CalFire. Nonetheless, he kept his home in South Oroville.
Two and one-half years later, when the board offered him his job back, he accepted, with no increase in wages. The salary: $27,000. Why? “I love this district,” he replied. “The people in it are the greatest people in the world.
“People who don’t live in South Oroville are afraid of it; to this day, I don’t know why that is. People ask me where I work: ‘Southside?’ ‘No—South Oroville.’ We’ve got a lot of good people who live in South Oroville. We’ve got a mix, as many Asians as we do Hispanics and as many African-Americans as whites. To me, they’re all my people, and I try to treat them the same.
“I’ve never been afraid of this place. If more people would come out here, spend some time, they’d know what I’m talking about.”
So, like the little engine that could, Ohlhausen and El Medio keep chugging along.
“Obviously we have financial problems,” said Marglin, the fire captain commuting from Chico, “but I think the service we provide here is outstanding for what we have, what we get and what we put out. We make something out of nothing. I’d like to see other departments with huge budgets try to do that.”