This is part of a weekly series introducing readers to individuals who are passionate about our Mid-Valley community.
In his 39 years with the Stayton Rural Fire District, Jay Alley has not rescued a cat from a tree. He’s rescued many people, and other animals from precarious situations, but not cats from trees.
Alley tells a story of how back in the 1970s – before he joined the department – a firefighter went up a ladder to get a cat out of a tree and fell and broke his neck. He was not paralyzed, but the department’s stance ever since has been that cats will come down when they’re ready.
“I try to tell people that and they’re like, ‘It’s been there for two days,’” Alley said. “Have you ever seen a dead cat in a tree? When it’s ready, it will come down.”
Alley has been on every other type of call a fire department gets, from burning buildings to car crashes to medical emergencies – and even rescuing a llama from a frozen pond. He’s filled pretty much every role in the department since he joined in 1983.
And now, the 55-year-old is the department’s new fire chief.
There is a hallway in Stayton’s main fire station with dozens of photos of the members of the department through the years. They pose in front of fire stations old and new and structures they burned as training exercises.
Alley is in nearly every picture.
“There might be some of the burn-to-learn pictures I might not have been around that weekend,” Alley said.
But for pretty much everything else over the past 39 years in the district, he’s been there.
Alley was born in Lebanon where his father was a volunteer fire fighter, and the family moved to Stayton in time for Alley to start first grade at St. Mary Catholic School.
He played soccer, football and baseball and developed a love of the outdoors, but his passion quickly turned to fighting fires.
Ron Tegan, who became Stayton’s first paid fire chief in 1973, lived down the street from the home where Alley grew up.
“He would always drive by our house when he was going on calls. That’s what I wanted to do,” Alley said.
Alley was in the Boy Scouts growing up. As an Explorer Scout at age 16 in 1983, Alley started working with the fire district.
After turning 18, he joined Stayton’s department as a volunteer firefighter shortly after graduating from Regis High School.
Over the next 12 years, he attended Chemeketa Community College, worked in a grass seed cleaner, a mill and for the state’s Department of Forestry as a wildland fire fighter and for the Oregon Department of State Lands.
He kept volunteering with Stayton the whole time.
Then, in 1996, the department’s full-time staff expanded to two more full-time people, and Alley and Laura Houston were hired. Both have worked there since.
Since 1996, Alley has had an 8 to 5 schedule for the department. That’s a rough guideline he doesn’t follow.
“You say go off the clock, I haven’t really found out when that is yet,” he said.
Alley became assistant chief in 2001, just before Jack Carriger was hired as fire chief. When Carriger retired at the end of October after 20 years, Alley was the natural replacement.
As chief, Alley gets a clean sheet in multiple ways.
Stayton voters in November 2021 passed an operations levy to fund paid firefighters around the clock for the first time.
The department has hired nine new firefighters since July and now has fire fighters on the clock at all hours.
Alley said call response times have plummeted, dropping to just over a minute out the door and three to four minutes to the scene on calls in Stayton.
The department also still has 45 active volunteers, which has allowed it to increase the number of calls it can respond to.
“For 99% of the time, we can guarantee a response,” Alley said. “I think it’s important for our community to know that our volunteers are not going away. Volunteers are still very active and are still a very important part of this organization and always will be.”
The Stayton Rural Fire District covers 107 square miles of Marion and Linn counties, including Stayton, Elkhorn, Marion, Mehama and the Little North Fork recreation area.
Alley has few hobbies outside of the fire service. In his free time, he likes to go camping and ride his side-by-side in the outdoors. But that’s about it.
Most of his life is focused on firefighting. And despite the cat in trees policy, there are a few rescues of adorable animals he doesn’t mind retelling.
There was once a call that a llama had fallen through a frozen pond at a farm. Alley and other fire fighters pulled the llama to safety using ropes and straps, but the llama was cold and near death.
The firefighters got it to a barn and did everything they could to warm it up, including using straw and their jackets. It only helped a little. Alley and the other firefighters did what was necessary to help because that’s what they do.
“We had firefighters laying on this llama, cuddling with this llama. We were trying to figure out a portable heater. The best thing we can do is cuddle with it,” Alley said.
Have an idea for someone we should profile for this series? Email Statesman Journal senior news editor Alia Beard Rau at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com