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Seeking Firefighters To Watch Over King County's 'Highway Of Death'

From the top of a mountain in far northeastern King County, the surrounding communities look tiny, just a couple hundred rooftops on a strip of flat land wedged between national forests.

I’m up here with Skykomish Fire Chief James Knisley, who points to U.S. 2 down on the valley floor, where the highway winds its way toward Stevens Pass.

“I don’t know if I should say this,” Knisley says. “Some people refer to it as the highway of death.”

That’s because there are so many accidents. Knisley’s fire crew responds to most of them. His fire department also drives skiers down to the hospital in Monroe.

It’s a weekday, which means many of the people living here are working at jobs in the Seattle area. While they’re away, Knisley’s crew is there to keep their homes from burning down in summer wildfires.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The town of Skykomish, viewed from our mountaintop perch. In this view, we see U.S. 2 heading down the valley toward Gold Bar.", "fid": "119385", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201507/Skykomish_River_Valley.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]We’ve come here so Knisley can make his case for a primary measure that would help upgrade equipment and buildings for King County Fire Protection District No. 50. He says the money will help, but there's an even bigger problem in the long term.

There used to be jobs in Skykomish. Employers would give their workers time off to volunteer. But most of those jobs are gone now. And so are the fire department’s volunteers.

Now, people with weekend cabins make up a large swath of the community.

“You know a lot of people come up here to ski,” Knisley says. “They’re not gonna, you know, drive up here all day and then say, ‘Well I’m just gonna walk across the street and hang out at the fire station all day.’ It’s like, ‘I’m going skiing.’”

Retirees also make up a big part of the population.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Larry Quiring retired in Skykomish after tolerating Seattle's noise and congestion for many years (his words). ", "fid": "119386", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201507/Quiring.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Down on the valley floor, one of those retirees waters his garden. Larry Quiring looks confident with a garden hose. But at 83 years old, he says he’s in no shape to hold fire hoses for the fire department.

“Well, I could stand and watch it and do a few light things. But it never occurred to me to volunteer,” he said. “I know they need firemen, but I’d probably have a heart attack if I worked on one.”

A few miles west in Baring is Andrea Dinsmore, 66. When she was just over 50, she went through firefighter training, hoping to volunteer. 

“I knew I was done when they dressed me up in gear and I tried to carry a charged hose,” she said. “You hate to admit you're old, but that proved to me that I was.”

Now, she and her husband, Jerry, have found other ways to give back. They maintain a free bunkhouse on their property for Pacific Crest Trail hikers. And Jerry wrote the statement in support of the fire department's ballot measure.  

Fire Chief Knisley says the people who own homes in Skykomish – whether retirees or weekenders – do volunteer in the community. The Skykomish Historical Society, for example, is thriving. But responding to road accidents is a tough, unpredictable and time-consuming business.

Which means that for now, he’s drawing volunteers from Gold Bar, outside his service area.

Correction 7/27/2015: An earlier version of this story misspelled Fire Chief James Knisley's last name.