Knappa fire chief to retire after 28 years
Olheiser led the fire district during a time of significant change
By Brenna Visser, The Daily Astorian Apr 22, 2019

Paul OlheiserPaul Olheiser is excited to finally have the chance to finish a woodworking project.

“As soon as I get involved in a woodworking project, a tone always goes off and I get distracted,” he laughed.

After 38 years as a firefighter and 28 years as the chief of the Knappa Fire District, Olheiser, 61, is set to retire in June.

After going through a number of surgeries in the past year, he decided the time was right.

“I want to spend more time with my grandkids while I have my health,” he said.

Originally from Prineville, Olheiser’s interest in firefighting was piqued while serving in the Marine Corps. He was assigned to protect natural resources as part of his range management duties at Camp Pendleton in California.

“I just enjoyed doing it,” he said.

After his military tour, Olheiser ended up moving to Madras, where he talked to a friend at the Jefferson County Fire District about joining as a volunteer.

His first day was actually a trial by fire.

A semitruck full of potatoes was in flames on a highway.

“I just remember getting the call: ‘Get dressed, get on the truck.’ No training, no nothing,” Olheiser said. “That was real common, getting training on the fly ... it isn’t like it is now. Now they’re required to have about 80 hours of training before they can even go on a call.”

While it felt overwhelming in the moment, what he remembers vividly is the satisfaction after the fire was out. He wanted to make firefighting his career.

Olheiser was hired part time with the Warm Springs Fire Department before eventually moving to work full time as a captain in the Black Butte Ranch Rural Fire Protection District. A few years later, his fire chief encouraged him to apply for the fire chief position that had opened up in Knappa.

“He just came in one day and he put a flyer in front of me. It was an advertisement for this position. And he said, ‘I think this is your cup of tea,’” he said.

Olheiser decided to make the leap, expecting to be in the position for only about five to seven years.

“They say to move positions every five years or so to keep yourself challenged,” he said. Yet every five years, “different things kept making the job challenging.”

Over the course of almost three decades, Olheiser led the fire district during a significant period of growth and change.

When he started in 1991, Knappa would get about 90 calls a year. Today, it’s closer to 500. Instead of responding to 10 car wrecks, his crew is responding to closer to 100. Wildfire conflagration calls, which used to be a rarity, are becoming more routine.

The fire district also expanded from one station to three during Olheiser’s tenure, while also taking over operations at the John Day Fire District.

And, like many rural fire districts, finding and keeping staff to do it all is a constant uphill battle.

But despite the job’s challenges, Olheiser said to this day he is excited about what he does.

“I don’t know if there’s anything I don’t enjoy about this job,” he said.

After he retires at the end of June, Olheiser will move to the Tri-Cities in Washington. Other than playing with his grandchildren, his retirement plans are to do “absolutely nothing” if he doesn’t have to.

While Olheiser won’t always miss waking up to emergency calls in the middle of the night, it will be difficult leaving the community he has come to love and protect.

“I enjoy helping other people,” he said. “I’m happy I’ve been able to do that.”