A death certificate for Arthur Nichols, the 76-year-old Camas man who died eight days after being rescued from a Valentine’s Day house fire, disputes what several people have held up as a cautionary tale during recent Camas City Council meetings.
“Look at Cathy here,” Camas community member Cherie Johnson urged city leaders at a March 19 council meeting, pointing to Nichols’ longtime girlfriend, Cathy Nagode, in the audience. “She lost her husband. He died because you only have two firefighters to drive a truck or an ambulance. He died from smoke inhalation, not burns. … She doesn’t have a husband because, once again, he died from smoke inhalation.”
Like Nagode and dozens of Camas-Washougal firefighters, Johnson had come to the meeting to convince city leaders they needed to hire more firefighters.
At the heart of their argument? The Valentine’s Day fire, which fire investigators say started in the kitchen due to an “undetermined” cause, filling the home and attached garage with smoke and trapping Nichols and the couple’s two dogs inside.
‘How different could that day and the aftermath have been?’
When firefighters responded to the Feb. 14 house fire at 1610 N.W. 27th Ave., in Camas’ Northwest Prune Hill neighborhood, they were not responding to a 911 call. Rather, the home’s automatic fire alarm system had generated the call.
The source of the call matters in Camas and Washougal, where city leaders say a “high percentage” of alarm-generated calls turn out to be false alarms. That’s why, instead of sending eight or more firefighters — standard for 911 calls to residential fires — CWFD typically dispatches one engine with two firefighters to house alarms.
“In the past, we’ve considered these types of calls not necessarily a fire … usually a false alarm,” Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said of the fire department’s response to alarm-generated calls.
But no one publicly complained about the practice until after the Valentine’s Day fire.
Adam Brice, president of East Clark Professional Fire Fighters, the local firefighters’ union, said the Feb. 14 fire put firefighters into a dangerous situation.
Firefighters who arrive at a residential fire with only two responders, one engine and back-up possibly 10 or 15 minutes away, “have not been provided with resources that make it possible to legally enter and extinguish a burning building when the first engine arrives on scene,” Brice said.
The union president, on behalf of the firefighters, filed a formal complaint with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries in late February, less than two weeks after the fire at Nichols’ home.
According to the union’s complaint, the local fire department has “substandard minimum apparatus staffing levels” that have created an unsafe working environment.
“There is a daily threat to the working firefighters that they will be forced to face hazards and perform in hazardous environments,” Brice stated in the complaint.
Since filing the complaint, Brice — along with Nagode, dozens of firefighters and concerned community members — has come to Camas council meetings, urging city leaders to find funding and increase the number of first responders on each engine.
“Right now, every day, we don’t have enough firefighters to do the job in a manner citizens deserve,” Brice told Camas City Council members at their April 2 meeting. “On Feb. 14, our firefighters went above and beyond. How different could that day and the aftermath been, had they had the appropriate resources? Now is time to make sure citizens of Camas and Washougal have the firefighters that they need.”
Fire, death and questions about smoke inhalation
Nagode, a phlebotomist who works for Kaiser Permanente, told The Post-Record this week that she had been at work for about an hour on Feb. 14, when she received a call from her neighbor, telling her that firefighters were at her house and that she needed to come right away.
Shaken by the news and unable to drive herself, Nagode, 62, said she called a coworker and asked them to give her a ride home.
When she arrived at the house she shared with Nichols, Nagode said she learned that firefighters had heard her boyfriend calling for help inside the couple’s attached garage. Firefighters broke through the garage door to rescue Nichols and one of the couple’s two dogs. They would later enter the home to rescue the couple’s second dog. Both dogs survived, though they still suffer from trauma, Nagode said.
By the time Nagode arrived, she said, the man she considered her husband despite the fact that the two had never officially married, had already been treated for smoke inhalation and rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.
“They (fire investigators) were interviewing me and I tried to tell them as much as I could, but I had no idea what had happened,” Nagode said.
Although Nichols suffered from a degenerative muscle disease, which caused his head to sag toward his shoulder, and had very recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Nagode said she was not uncomfortable leaving her partner at home by himself. Before she left for work that day, Nagode said, she prepared some soup for Nichols and her “love” gave his usual, funny, goodbye when she left.
“He always told me, ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down,'” Nagode said, smiling at the memory. “That was the last thing he said to me.”
Nagode had already been through a massive loss a few years earlier, when her severely disabled adult son, Josh, died in hospice care. She knew that Nichols, who had been by her side when Josh was dying, had created a living will. Nichols, Nagode said, did not want to go through some of the things he’d witnessed during Josh’s final days.
“No ventilator. No tube feeding,” Nagode said of Nichols’ wishes for end-of-life care.
Medical professionals told her that, without the ventilator, Nichols would likely die right away.
“But Art had different plans,” Nagode said.
When doctors removed his ventilator, Nichols surprised everyone by breathing on his own and trying to talk, Nagode said.
The fire happened on a Wednesday. By Saturday, Nagode said Nichols had been transferred from the emergency room to a burn unit to the hospice center in Vancouver. Once there, Nagode said, Nichols slipped into a deep sleep and never really regained consciousness.
Nichols, a former merchant marine who loved riding Harleys and being out on the water in the boat he shared with Nagode, died at 11:54 a.m., Feb. 22.
He had known that his life was coming to a close, Nagode said. Doctors had recently told Nichols that he had prostate cancer, and that it had spread throughout his body. But, she said, the couple had plans for Nichols’ final months.
“We wanted to go to the beach, to go out on the boat again,” she said, crying as she looked through photos from the couple’s happier years. “We had plans. He wanted to be at home, with his dogs. He loved those dogs. We had more time. … It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Nagode said this week that she definitely believes her partner of 25 years died from causes related to smoke inhalation.
But Nichols’ death certificate tells a different story.
Charlotte White, the Community Home Hospice Center nurse-practitioner who, according to Nagode, evaluated Nichols during his short stay at the Vancouver hospice, signed the certificate after Nichols’ death on Feb. 22.
The nurse-practitioner listed “malignant neoplasm of prostate” as the cause of Nichols’ death, with “secondary malignant neoplasm of bone; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; (and) chronic atrial fibrillation” listed as contributing factors. Nichols’ cause of death is listed as “natural,” not accidental. White did not refer the case to a medical examiner or coroner for an autopsy, and Nichols’ body was cremated shortly after his death.
City makes initial change, looks toward funding sources
The city has changed its procedure for house alarm-generated calls and brought battalion chiefs back into the mix.
“We’ve changed our policy, so there will be at least three people with the battalion chief responding as well as the two-person (fire engine crew),” Capell told The Post-Record in late March.
In early April, CWFD Chief Nick Swinhart, who has long advocated for an increase in staffing levels at the local fire department, presented city council members and Camas Mayor Scott Higgins, with cost estimates of hiring more firefighters and meeting the public’s demands for at least three, if not four, responders on every call for service coming in to CWFD stations.
Swinhart said four-person engine companies are more typical in larger metropolitan areas like Portland, and that even nearby Vancouver, which has roughly four times the population base of Camas-Washougal, “employs three-person engine staffing.”
To ensure three people on each engine at all three of Camas’ fire stations would require the city to add an additional 12 to 15 full-time responders at a cost of about $1.3 million per year in additional salary and benefit costs, plus any additional equipment required for the new firefighters.
One possible option for providing the level of service firefighters and their union president have been calling for is to form some type of taxing district, like a regional fire authority, which could gain voter support for staffing increases and pass property tax levies.
Swinhart said in April that he would like to see city and fire leaders discuss these issues at CWFD Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC) meetings, where the cities of Camas and Washougal are equally represented.
‘We had more time together’
More than two months after losing her longtime partner and being displaced from the home they shared, Nagode is still trying to piece her life back together.
Knowing that the death certificate disputes what she believes to be a clear fact — that the smoke Nichols breathed in while waiting for firefighters to extract him from his burning home on Valentine’s Day contributed to his death — weighs on Nagode.
“He had black sludge coming out of his lungs,” Nagode said. “His mustache was black from the smoke, and he had black around his nose. He was there (at the hospice center) because of smoke inhalation, not because of cancer.”
Nagode said she is fighting to get the death certificate changed.
“We had more time together, that’s what is so frustrating,” a distraught Nagode said this week. “He had cancer, yes. But he had time. When he got his diagnosis, they told him he had time … maybe six months. We were making plans. I wanted him to have the (home death) he wanted. The fire changed that.”