Firefighters' Notebook: Navigating Growth: A Small Town Fire Department Faces a Population Boom and Rising Demands

A red with black fire apparatus in a parking lot surrounded by grass and trees with mountains and a blue sky in the background.

A dedicated fire chief discusses the difficulties his department has encountered due to the rapid population growth in his small town over the last five years and how they are rising to the challenge to keep their community safe. 

Navigating Growth: A Small Town Fire Department Faces a Population Boom and Rising Demands

What was once a small timber town, Bend, Oregon, has become a hub for outdoor enthusiasts. Nestled near the Cascade Mountains and along the Deschutes River, it’s no surprise tourists are moving to the city to live, work and raise a family while enjoying its natural landscape and picturesque views.

"I came here for vacation in 1997, and it took me half a day to realize there was something special about this place and community," said Chief Todd Riley from Bend Fire & Rescue (BF&R). "I knew I wanted to make Bend my home." Bend Fire Chief, Todd Riley, in a blue uniform, standing in front of a fire apparatus.

Chief Riley’s dream came true when he joined the Bend Fire Department as a full-time firefighter in 2002. Showing his dedication and loyalty to the department and community over the years, he was appointed department chief in 2019.

However, Chief Riley wasn't the only one moving to Bend. Between 1990 and 2024, the town experienced a population growth of 20,000 to 110,000, and the population is expected to increase to 155,806 by 2045. This growth has increased the demands on the community's infrastructure, especially its first responders like BF&R.

According to Chief Riley, the department experienced a 60% increase in call volume between 2014 and 2023 and is still working with the same budget and resources set in 2014, when the population was around 85,000. "It's been a challenge, but it's our responsibility to adapt to the growth and provide the best service possible," he said.

It's a typical misconception firefighters only respond to fire-related calls when, in actuality, they are responding to all sorts of emergencies. About 80% of BF&R incoming calls are Emergency Medical Services (EMS) related calls, and 40% of these calls are non-urgent, according to Chief Riley.

"The first way to tackle this increased demand is to ensure our resources and staff are used effectively and efficiently. The best way to do this is to filter and re-direct any non-emergency call."

Two fire trucks with lights on, one with the ladder extended, and a gray pickup truck, in front of a brown house.In addition to a growing population, BF&R faces the challenge of Bend's high desert climate and mountainous terrain. As more houses are constructed into the surrounding wildland and forested areas, the greater the risk of wildfires. 

"I can't express how urgent it is for Bend residents and tourists to understand the serious risk of wildfires," Chief Riley stresses, highlighting about 85% of wildfires are caused by human activities. 

In response to this escalating threat, BF&R has launched the "Own Your Zone" campaign, which provides residents with actionable steps to create defensible spaces around their homes, including regularly clearing debris and brush from yards. According to Chief Riley, educational materials are also posted throughout the town and serve as a constant reminder to tourists and residents of the importance of wildfire safety measures. 

In 2024, BF&R experienced a huge win when the city of Bend passed a levy which will increase the overall department budget by nearly $13 million in the first year. Chief Riley explained the extra funding will help support additional staff and vehicles, including a new fire apparatus. 

"This is what we need to keep the growing community safe," said Chief Riley. "Which is why we do what we do, to help people and keep them safe. It is our job to do everything we can to meet the demand of our community.” 

It’s progressive leaders like Chief Riley who propel fire departments ahead to ensure communities have the resources and dedicated individuals needed to operate effectively into the future.