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UCFD #1 Hot Seat: Nate Stephens

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It’s time for the eighth 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.

It is with great pleasure UCFD #1 introduces to you; Lieutenant Nate Stephens. An Oregon native, Nate grew up in the town of Springfield and never thought he’d leave the valley. While growing up he had a desire to go through an ROTC program and commit to the Marine Corps. Little did he know, his fate would soon change by one of his close friends newfound interests; firefighting. One day Nate’s friend said, “Hey, I’m going to this fire academy. You want to come with me?” Without skipping a beat Nate looked at him and replied, “Let’s give it a try!” Just like that, Stephens and his friend became interns at Turner Fire District in the valley. Fast forward a little bit and Nate’s friend had dropped out of the academy to join the military while Nate stuck with it and got his degree at Chemeketa Community College in 1993. “By the time I graduated, fire districts were only hiring exclusively firefighter paramedics. So I just went around and tested everywhere until I could land a job. Hermiston Fire and Emergency Services was the first fire district to give me a job offer,” recalled Stephens. “I had to look it up on a map because I didn’t know where it was in Oregon, then I moved out here,” he added. In 1999, Nate became full time with Hermiston Fire which means this August will mark 23 years of his dedication to the fire service.

Before working as a firefighter, Stephens was used to working 12 hour shifts in the steel fabrication industry. When looking back at his time spent doing hard labor he expressed, “There was a lot of menial jobs, but the most boring, mind-numbing ones used the magnet drill. You’d drill a bolt hole through this gigantic beam, but it would take forever. One hole might take 15 minutes, it might do four holes in an hour. There was just no thinking required.” “That company paid well, but they also worked you hard so it was 10 to 12 hour days, six days a week. So I went from that to 300 calls a year in the fire district (Turner Fire District),” he added. Nate had an Uncle who had been working as an experienced tiller steering engineer for 20 years in Eugene, OR when he started at Hermiston Fire. “When I joined the fire service, I remember my first week at Turner Fire we didn’t go on one single call. I thought this is the easiest job in the world because it was a small district. Well, my uncle set me straight and let me know that I didn’t really understand what I was talking about . Of course he was a firefighter in the city of Eugene, so they were very busy but I got one of those early young man’s smack downs that we all need from time to time,” recalled Stephens.

Furthermore, the call volume started to grow as the City of Hermiston started to bring in more people. Our district went from having a little over 1,000 calls a year back in the 90’s to now reaching our highest call volume ever recorded at 5,604 for the year of 2021. This whole town has been on the rise in recent years and Stephens saw some of that starting back in the late 90’s. “When I moved here Bi-Mart was brand new, I’m not sure Walmart was completely built yet so it just was a smaller town than it is now. I want to say our population was around 10,000-12,000 then. So definitely the call volume wasn’t what it is today. You can drive down Diagonal Road and see where there’s gonna be a whole bunch more homes built shortly, everything’s just kind of filling in,” explains Stephens. The population growth not only changes the amount of calls we receive but it has effected the topography of the area. Nate recalls tons of sage brush, sand and grass everywhere before all of the subdivisions were built. “In August, it was generally every day or twice a day, we would get brush fires. So you’d come to work knowing you’re going get at least one, maybe two or three brush fires, because there was so much more area to burn,” he recalls. “I remember one time in particular there was a train heading back to the Hinkle Rail Yard from up north, but it was coming down Cooney Road and the train started a fire around Benzel Road and it didn’t end until it got to the Hinkle Rail Yard. We had a long shift that day. Hermiston’s definitely changed,” Stephens added.

Additionally, firefighting and job itself had evolved over time. Depending on where you rode on the engine back in the day, things might have been a bit more exciting.“The district that I joined when I was an intern for a couple of years, they still rode on the tailboard of the fire engines. On some sections of the I-5 we’d respond to car crashes, so I’d be riding on the back of the engine going a pretty good speed,” remarked Stephens. One big misconception about firefighting is that a lot of people think firefighters only fight fires. Stephens comments, “We run both the engine and the ambulance. You know, 80-90% of our job is the ambulance. It still seems like a lot of people don’t know that firefighters run the ambulance too. Most of the rural areas are going to be ran by the fire district or fire departments.” A huge part of this job is the connection you make with your crew on EMS calls and responding to fires. The camaraderie that the men and women share in the fire service is a bond that cannot be broken. “I think you would probably get this answer from anybody that just loves the fire service and but I think with us, it’s the people that you get to work with that make it special, they’re all high quality people. Most have a great work ethic, high-level patriotism and they’re just good people to work with and work for,” said Stephens. “My memory is filled with the good and bad. There’s a lot of fondness and gratitude for the people that I’ve been privileged to work with,” he added.

Last but not least, Stephens volunteers his time for the community and he is the Vice President of the Campus Life Board. He is currently helping organize the Hermiston Campus Life’s dinner coming up on Friday, February 25, 2022, at the Hermiston Community Center. There will be live music, an auction, a catered dinner and raffle items. Stephens is the deacon at New Hope Community Church and helps those that are in need. Nate has been married to his wife Gena for 25 years and she is his first and only amazing wife. Gena and Nate have two daughters who are both very artistically gifted in their own ways. In Nate’s down time you might find him gardening. Several years ago he bought a book called “The Grape Grower” that was written by a local Oregon author from Aurora that sparked his interest in wine making. “I ordered a bunch of basically what you’d call grape sticks from him. He cuts the cuttings and I root them. Now I’ve got myself a vineyard, for one person at least,” explains Stephens. Not only does he enjoy spending time in his vineyard but he enjoys the dojo. For years now Stephens has been reading books written by the Grandmaster of Japan. “His actual words even to this day are, “I wrote those books for children,” even though they’re not children’s book per se, but I just read them,” said Stephens. Nate found his calling for martial arts while driving to Chemeketa one day on Lancaster Drive. “I saw the Bujinkan symbol while driving and I said, oh, this is what the dojo is in America. I didn’t know that because there wasn’t the internet. So I just walked in and signed up and started training. It was not as good of training as you obviously would get in Japan, but it was the only thing available at the time in Oregon. Eventually as the year went on, we started going to Japan and training with the Masters and the Grandmaster. I’ve been getting better at it ever since,” expressed Stephens. Having a release from work is always good for one’s mental health and wellness, this is what martial arts became for Stephens. “Martial arts grows the human being into a better human being… becoming more stable and more calm, if they’re doing it correctly. So that helps you in the fire service. However, a lot of firefighters, they don’t have a spiritual path laid out for them, so they just usually wander. I know for me, martial arts helped me overcome anger issues and post traumatic stress disorder,” alleged Stephens. “I would say my martial arts practice compliments my service in the Fire District, as opposed to, similarities. But yeah, of course it’s helps me become more calm in stressful situations,” he added. 

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.