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Fire department on the Oregon Coast gains volunteers despite vaccine mandate

After presenting concern to the governor about volunteers fleeing a COVID vaccine mandate, the city of Warrenton unexpectedly recruited new volunteer firefighters.

WARRENTON, Ore. — As some people lose their jobs in Oregon and Washington because of COVID vaccine mandates taking effect this week, a small fire department in Warrenton is unexpectedly gaining volunteers.

Cade Wilkins is one of the newest recruits, who started several weeks ago.

"I feel like I can give back to the community," he said. "Feel like I have the ability to help out in any way I can." 

Wilkins moved to the northern Oregon coast city of Warrenton from Clackamas about three years ago. His day job is teaching government, economics and weight training at Warrenton High School. He also coaches football and baseball, but wanted to do even more for the community.

After seeing the tough job for fire crews during last year's wildfires, he started working toward the goal of joining the local fire department as a volunteer.

He's one of five new recruits, an unexpected windfall for Warrenton Fire Department.

"We actually ended up having people step forward, hearing about the crisis looming," mayor Henry Balensifer said.

Balensifer joined several other small-town mayors in expressing concern to the governor before this week's COVID vaccine mandate took effect.

RELATED: Small communities across Oregon worry vaccine mandate will lead to extreme first responder staff shortage

He worried emergency departments would lose critical volunteers and services.

"Anytime you see somebody who doesn't have to be there be told they have to do something...their hair [stands] up a little bit," Balensifer said.

According to the mayor, ultimately one volunteer in the department received a medical exemption for the vaccine. One other was let go for not getting the vaccine.

However, all other members of the department got vaccinated, many after consulting their doctors.

"A lot of people put aside their personal beliefs...and got the shot because once again, they're putting service above themselves," Balensifer said.

Three of the five new volunteers are already certified medics.

"It's heartening to see the volunteer spirit of rural America, of rural Oregon, to once again step in and say 'call on me," Balensifer added.

Other small towns may not be seeing the same luck. Balensifer said the mayors of Dayton and Fossil are concerned as emergency departments lose volunteers.

However, he hopes potential volunteers will be inspired by Warrenton's example.

For Wilkins, joining the department was not about the vaccine.

"This wasn't something I just woke up one day and decided I want to do," Wilkins said. "A lot of thought went into this."

The vaccine was simply a step to join the ranks and help his community.

"We're all down here, trying to help out one another, and we're all just trying to do the best we can."

RELATED: Washington State Patrol loses 127 employees due to COVID vaccine mandate