Rural Highlands struggles to retain fire crews

There are plenty of empty hooks at both fire halls in Highlands.

There are plenty of empty hooks at both fire halls in Highlands.

Staffed with a small operational group of firefighters, Highlands Volunteer Fire Department is looking for more residents to fill its roster.

Ideally the department needs about 35 members, but it sitting at a mere 18. With less than ideal numbers fire Chief Guy Brisebois said he is quick to call in mutual aid when needed.

“The day (shifts) are pretty tricky for us because we don’t know who is going to show up,” Brisebois said.

All candidates for the department must be at least 19 years old, be physically fit and have a clear criminal record. Both men and women are encouraged to apply. “We provide all the training,” Brisebois said.

It’s not uncommon for someone to join the department and then decide they are not up for the training, usually physical work three to four hours per week Thursday evenings and some weekends.

Brisbois suspects Highlands has trouble retaining firefighters due to the district’s greying population. Many people who have served with the department have left as they have aged, and fewer young people are moving into the district.

In 2011 the department had six members join and about the same number leave. So far this year no one has signed on. A rural, heavily forested area, Highlands has just over 2,100 residents to draw from.

Firefighters in their 50s have told Brisebois that they are reluctant to retire from the department because there is no one to replace them.

Any young recruits who do join the department tend to be still living with their parents.

“Young guys move out of mom and dad’s house and since there is no apartment building, (they leave the district),” Brisebois said.

Years ago Highlands fire department would only accept homeowners as volunteer firefighters to ensure the force was staffed with people likely to stay in the district. With a struggle to get enough volunteers that stipulation was lifted.

“We couldn’t do it without the renters,” Brisebois said. Only a handful of the department’s members own homes in the district.

Some small fire departments try to find people who work within the municipality to add to the firefighter pool, but, as Brisebois points out, Highlands is a bedroom community without many businesses at all.

“It’s a rewarding experience,” said Brisebois, who has been with the department for 13 years. “But, it’s not for everyone.”

For more information on joining Highlands Volunteer Fire Department, call Brisebois at 250-920-6970.

reporter@goldstreamgazette.com