Deputy state fire marshals Michelle Stevens, left, and Charlie Chase investigate a ìfifth-wheelî trailer destroyed by fire near Trail. A man died in the Monday afternoon fire.10-11-07

Down to the Dirtiest Detail

Contrary to the popular "CSI" shows, the job of fire investigator is far from glamorous, says Charles Chase. As deputy state fire marshal, Chase is responsible for determining the origins and causes of deadly and destructive fires throughout Jackson and Josephine counties.

"Unlike 'CSI,' on a structure fire, you've got a shovel in your hand much of the time and when insulation lands on the floor you get to shovel the junk out to get to the detail part of it," Chase says.

"You're usually on your hands and knees. It stinks in the summertime — bugs go crazy for the smoke and there are bees and flies everywhere. ... Or you're in four feet of frickin' snow, you're freezing your butt off and digging yourself even deeper."

Chase, 55, who considers this his dream job despite the sometimes severe conditions, also helps interpret and enforce fire codes, review plans and educate the public about such fire safety issues as fireworks and smoke detectors.

Always up for a challenge, Chase entered the fire service at a young age looking for something less monotonous than "assembling three-piece widgets."

Tall and skinny, Chase viewed firefighting as a challenge. He wanted to see if he could do it.

"I never had any intention of being a firefighter but I was the guy that liked a challenge, so I got on as a firefighter probably because I felt like it was a push," he says.

After two-and-a-half years as a volunteer, Chase went on to spend 15 years as a line firefighter, enjoying the camaraderie and variety of the fire service.

When a position opened with the state fire marshal's office in 1999, it was common for fire marshal roles to be filled by "ex-firefighters who wound up with a bum knee, hurt their back or got too fat to be on a line fighting fires anymore," he says.

"I'd had a couple back surgeries and was turning into an old fart," he says. "And being a line firefighter is a very strenuous, very difficult job."

Over the years, the job of fire marshal has evolved from guesswork to science.

"Nowadays, it's become so sophisticated for the sake of trying to have consistency of codes and techniques," Chase says.

The toughest part of his job is seeing the fatalities — especially children, and especially as Chase gets older.

"It's really a tough thing. In my 15 years as paid full-time firefighter, I only saw one fatal. Working for the state fire marshal's office, I get six to 10 a year," he says.

"For a lot of years I thought I was completely jaded, but now I'm starting to see, on the tail end of my career, that it's sort of cumulative. I thought I was tough. Even after all these years, there are certainly ones that push your buttons."

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