South Lane County Fire & Rescue Chief John Wooten was placed on leave last week.

COTTAGE GROVE – It’ll be another week before the South Lane Fire County Fire & Rescue board reconvenes to discuss the investigation of fire Chief John Wooten’s alleged personal Facebook posts dating back two months, ones that say the pandemic is a hoax and that rioters should be shot. 

SLCF&R’s initial statement on June 2 said that Chief Wooten “did not make any statement in his official capacity as fire chief,” and stated that his personal page was hacked. 

Wooten was placed on non-disciplinary administrative leave. Soon after, a protest was organized on his behalf, and a dozen or so people gathered for nearly three hours in downtown Cottage Grove on June 3.

“People were already calling for resignation or termination – that is what we were protesting,” said Duane Taddei, protest organizer. “We have to develop the facts,” Taddei said. “Did he post it? Was it a copy and paste job? Was his profile set to private? Who was he posting to? This is tough. I support the fire chief, and there is a little doubt. Maybe he was hacked. If he was hacked, then we don’t have an issue. If he wasn’t hacked, then we have a problem.”

The board will have an executive meeting to address the investigation’s findings and to take disciplinary action if appropriate June 18 at 7 p.m. 

“It is not District practice to provide detailed comments on ongoing personnel matters,” said Joe Raade, who is the acting fire chief. Raade declined further comment. 

The alleged comments on Wooten’s personal page date back two months, Eugene TV station KEZI first reported. 

Wooten allegedly shared memes calling the pandemic “the biggest media generated mass hysteria since Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast ‘War of the Worlds’” and another that said “Sorry folks, Oregon is closed, that b- in Salem said so.”

“The US is on a crisis lockdown over 41 deaths! That’s called a weekend in Chicago. Explain what this is not an overreaction?,” another post read.

During the height of COVID-19 in the state, Wooten was deployed to the emergency operations center in Salem and served as the deputy operations chief in the human resources division of the State Fire Marshal Incident Management Team (IMT). There, in April, he told The Chronicle he was working up to 14 hours a day for 14 days straight with authorities to plan COVID-19 responses. Wooten was also deployed to assist at the Oregon Health Authority in Portland, he said.  

Wooten’s operations team implemented all plans that came out of the OHA, he said, and would build plans around EMS responses, set up hospitals and coordinate regional healthcare around the state. 

In one post, Wooten allegedly wrote, “So I made the comment we should shoot the rioters and someone asked me how I could possibly do that. I replied it depended on distance, wind, temp, humidity and a few other variables but once I had the calculations done it would be a matter of breathing control and trigger squeeze.”

Fire Board president Joel Higdon, who released a public statement on his own behalf, said, "I am convinced that the District remains committed to protecting the health, safety and welfare of everyone in our community, regardless of political stance or race...I want to be clear: such posts do not reflect District views and I do not condone such language."

Wooten began at SLCF&R as fire chief in June 2014. “People come out and wave and cheer when he comes back to town,” Taddei said. He is their leader. Proven time and time and time again that he is a leader here.” 

Wooten, formerly of Adams, Ore., was chief of the East Umatilla County Health District, the deputy chief of the Helix Rural Fire District, and the base manager for Life Flight Pendleton.

SLCF&R provides fire protection to a 132-square mile area encompassing the cities of Creswell and Cottage Grove and an EMS service of 800 square miles. In 2019, SLCF&R handled over 4,400 calls for service. 

The board maintains that it is reviewing the incident and “we take this matter very seriously,” Raade said. “We take great pride in the public’s trust in our organization and work hard every day to continuously earn that trust.” 

All correspondence to the fire board should be sent to [email protected]

To provide written comments before the June 18 meeting, email [email protected] or to SLCF&R Board of Directors, 233 Harrison Ave., Cottage Grove, Ore., 97424.