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UCFD #1 Hot Seat: Lee Salvador

May contain: fireman, person, and helmet

It’s time for the twelfth edition of the UCFD #1 Hot Seat. The Hot Seat provides a brief snapshot sharing the story of a highly committed and dedicated staff member. This month we are telling the story of a hard working and dedicated staff member.

It is with great pleasure UCFD #1 introduces to you; Lee Salvador. Lee was born in Arcata, CA but moved to Eastern Oregon where he was raised by his grandparents. “While growing up I split some time between Las Vegas, NV and Pendleton before moving to Hermiston about 15 years ago and I’ve been here ever since,” recalls Salvador. He never thought of getting involved at the fire department until talking to a coworker one day while at the Walmart Distribution Center in Hermiston. Ryan Campbell, Hazmat Coordinator and Fire Mechanic at UCFD #1, told Lee that he had what it took to become a volunteer for the Fire District. “He told me about volunteering for UCFD #1 and said that I would be a good candidate and honestly I never really thought about firefighting at all. Campbell started telling me all the fun stuff that they do in the community and the hard work they put in and thought that would be something I’d be interested in,” said Salvador. It was just an idea at first but come to find out Lee would have a moment of reckoning a few months later. While sitting in a restaurant in the Willamette Valley Lee and his daughter, Berlin Salvador, saw a group of firefighters doing a fundraiser. Berlin and Lee decided to donate some money to their department and his daughter looked up and him and said, “You could do that Dad.” Little did Lee know, that moment at the restaurant shaped his future. “I went in to the main station at UCFD #1 when I got back to town, filled out my application, and the rest is history,” remembers Salvador.

Coupled with starting a volunteer position at UCFD #1 in 2014, Lee left his job as a mechanic at Walmart DC to work as a carman at the Hinkle Rail Yard. He found himself working in a craft that only very few people get the opportunity to work in. “I worked as a carman, so we were responsible for maintenance and the upkeep of all the freight cars or what we call rolling stock,” said Salvador. When Lee initially started to volunteer he was working at the railroad on the graveyard shift and was having a hard time initially making volunteer drill night because of his work schedule. He asked to have a meeting with Training Chief Jim Whelan where he was going to resign from the department because he didn’t feel like he was contributing much but Jim Whelan talked him out of it. “Jim had spoke to a couple of other people and they set up a training time during the week because there were some other volunteers that were having a few issues showing up as well. From there I got more involved so I could keep moving forward and stay relevant. It helped keep that spark alive. It was difficult going through fire academy. At that point, I had enough seniority for a day shift position. I’d actually given up that day shift position to go back to nights so that way I could do the academy during the work days. Those were really long, long days but very gratifying,” stated Salvador. “It was completely worth it. I had a really great core group of people that helped me starting off, which has kind of instilled that helpful nature in me. Now when I see other volunteers, when I’m helping out resident interns or anybody in general, I just remember where I came from and I remember the people that went out of their way to help me when I was struggling,” he added. There is a moment in evert first responders career that solidifies their calling to this line of work. Back when Lee started volunteering he was sent on a motor vehicle accident for someone that he knew. This call is what drove Lee to get more involved so that he could provide more care in the future when it was needed. “My hands were tied and I was limited with my skillset at the time. That moment is what carried me into applying for school to receive my Emergency Medical Technicians certification and going forward with my medical training because that’s a huge portion of the calls we run at UCFD #1, and any department for that matter,” he said. Salvador thought that this would be his life until he retired, working at the rail yard while volunteering for his local department. Unfortunately, corporate started to restructure and 60% of Hinkle Rail Yard’s workforce was furloughed, including Lee. This led Lee back to the drawing board where he applied to a job at Shearer’s Foods. Not too soon after applying, Lee was hired on by Shearer’s Foods to work in maintenance.

Similarly to Lee’s job at the rail yard, this job also came to a screeching halt. On February 22, 2022, at 12:51. p.m. it was reported that a boiler exploded at Shearer’s Foods, causing several people to be injured and the plant to become engulfed in flames. “That call happened on my day off, I responded to the station and we had a full crew so we rolled an engine out. I was the engineer and right after we turned off of Coe Road we just saw nothing but black smoke and my head just started spinning,” recalls Salvador. While responding in route, Lee started looking through the dispatch notes and saw the word ‘explosion’ and prepared for the worst. A fellow volunteer, Ray Harris, helped to calm him down during the trip there. “I’m thinking that’s my maintenance guys in there, my colleagues that I work with. We heard there were possible injuries and I just wanted to be there to help my coworkers,” said Salvador. “As we were pulling up, it was pretty easy to switch into work mode. Thankfully training and everything else kicked in and then it was just, what do I need to do to help,” he added. Fortunately, everyone got out of the building with no major injuries and were released from the hospital that night. Lee was working alongside our crews and mutual aid departments to try and stop the fury of flames flying out of the plant. The building was fully involved when units arrived on scene, with high winds pushing flames towards the South away from neighboring structures. The building was a total loss and crews extinguished what they could through the rubble. Some crews stayed over night on fire watch as bits and pieces smoldered under the collapsed roof. Salvador remarks, “The gravity of the Shearer’s Fire didn’t hit me until a few days later when I was doing some of the overhaul work with our Fire Marshal Scott Goff and I was on the ground seeping through the rubble, answering some questions for him about the building I worked in and different things. That’s kind of when I started to realize what all of these people who were my coworkers just went through. It was pretty heavy, but I’m a glass half-full guy so there’s no point in being upset over something that’s out of your control,” he said. Over 270 employees lost their jobs because of the devastating event. Shearer’s Foods employed 1 in every 30 people in Hermiston, leaving a large majority of people in town jobless.

In light of the situation at hand, a spot for Lee opened up at Umatilla County Fire District #1. Lee took the opportunity to come on board as a temp Firefighter/EMT and he has enjoyed the transition. Lee has been a volunteer since 2014, but hasn’t ever experienced what it’s like to work a full 48 hour shift before. “I have really good relationship with everyone but it’s a different kind of view point when you’re living at the station, doing it full time with the same guys, popping in and out on calls,” said Salvador. “I didn’t see a lot of that behind the scenes stuff as a volunteer, because you’re just in for a call, you do your paperwork, you get your rig ready, then you’re out. You don’t get to see all of the stuff that goes unnoticed,” he added. Lee was thankful for his years of training and serving as a volunteer because it seasoned him to be prepared for any and all situations while on shift. “It’s been an awesome ride,” exclaimed Salvador. Living in a smaller community you are bound to get recognized by someone you know, especially when you ride around on the engine. “People ask you how you are doing, and there’s just an overwhelming sense of pride and honor to be able to do what we do. You just get a sense of self-worth that will carry you through anything. It’s an awesome responsibility. That’s the best way to explain it, it’s an awesome responsibility,” said Salvador. This job wasn’t made for everyone and it takes a special kind of person to find their calling in the fire service. “I really do think in a lot of ways it is a calling. It’s not for everybody. We see a lot of bad stuff. You gotta be able to put that aside for the good stuff. You’re there to do your job, but you’re there to help,” stated Salvador.

When Lee isn’t working at the station most of his free time is spent with his daughter, Berlin. They enjoy going on road trips, hiking and even getting lost and finding new places to explore. “Sometimes we’ll just head out the door on and pick to either turn left or right and we’ll just go in that direction. Then two or three days later, we’ll just end up where we end up,” said Salvador.

For those that might be interested in becoming a volunteer at UCFD #1 we encourage you to apply online. We are always looking to grow our family here and we are a combination department that relies not only on our shift crews, but our volunteers as well. “I would say if it’s something you’re considering or even thought about remotely, even for a second, walk up to a firefighter, walk up to a fire station, knock on the door and talk to someone about getting involved. It’s a very open culture and we want it to be inviting for anybody. We enjoy it. It breaks up the monotony when kids, parents or students come by and ask questions. Just go up to any of us and ask whatever is on your mind and you’ll find that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and you might even find something that you you’re into,” explained Salvador.

It is our goal to bring the community closer with our District by telling the stories of the men and women who represent Umatilla County Fire District #1. It’s better to meet them, before you need them.