Hail to the chief

East County Fire & Rescue’s Mike Carnes settles into new role

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East County Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Mike Carnes sits in an engine at ECFR Fire Station 91 near Grove Field in northern Camas on March 7. Carnes, the district's former deputy fire chief, took over as chief on Feb. 1 after the fire district's board of commissioners voted to end a two-year fire chief sharing program with Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

If you’d asked a 30-year-old Mike Carnes what he’d be doing at age 59, he may have theorized “managing the Pendleton Woolen Mills” or “playing with my grandchildren” or maybe “taking camping trips with my wife.”

It’s doubtful Carnes would have guessed he’d be where he is now: running the East County Fire and Rescue (ECFR) district as a fire chief.

“I always wanted to be a firefighter,” Carnes said recently during an interview with The Post-Record at the fire district’s headquarters, Station 91, located near Grove Field airport in northern Camas. “But I never thought I’d be chief.”

The ECFR board of commissioners voted in mid-December 2018 to terminate a shared fire chief agreement with Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD), citing a need for cost savings in light of voters’ rejection of ECFR’s levy lid lift in the November 2018 midterm election. On Feb. 1, CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart stepped away from his role leading ECFR and Carnes, then the fire district’s deputy fire chief, took the reins.

Carnes didn’t even become a firefighter until he started volunteering with ECFR in 1997. At that point in his life, Carnes was a 37-year-old married father of three young girls and worked full-time as a manager at Pendleton Woolen Mills in Washougal. He and his wife, Cathy, had relocated from the small, northeastern Oregon town of Pilot Rock with their children the year before and Cathy encouraged her husband to follow his dream and sign up as a volunteer firefighter.

Things were different then, Carnes said. The East Clark County fire district, which was split into two — No. 1 and No. 9, covering Camas and Washougal’s rural areas — was a volunteer-only district and the volunteers all lived inside the district. When their pagers went off in the middle of the night, it didn’t matter if they were tired from a full day of work or if they really didn’t want to get out of a warm bed on a cold rainy night.

“If we didn’t respond, the rig didn’t roll,” Carnes said.

Two years into his stint as a volunteer firefighter, the district’s higher ups asked Carnes to take on a volunteer supervisor role. The gig came with more responsibility but was still a volunteer position, and Carnes said he couldn’t have managed his full-time job at Pendleton plus his family responsibilities at home and a time-consuming volunteer position at the fire district without his wife’s support.

“(Cathy) was great, very supportive,” he said. “She was the one who pushed me into it because she knew I wanted to do this. I don’t know if she really knew the pager would be going off in the middle of the night, but she never complained about it.”

As for the then almost-40-year-old Carnes, firefighting was becoming a passion that satisfied his thirst for adventure and helped him form a tight knit community with his fellow firefighters and first responders.

“It was exciting,” Carnes said of his early firefighting days. “I loved it. I loved going ‘code three’ with the lights and sirens, knowing we were going to help someone who was having a very bad day.”

Not every day was a good day, though.

When he first started volunteering as a firefighter/first responder, Carnes tried to imagine how he might cope with his first fatality.

“I always thought it would be someone elderly, someone who had lived a full life,” Carnes said. “But when it happened, it was a 12-year-old boy.”

The child had suffered an asthma attack in a rural area and died despite the first responders’ best efforts to save his life.

Carnes can still remember how devastated he felt.

“Kids are always the hardest,” he said. “I would wake up at night thinking about it. I had kids that age then.”

The experience helped Carnes understand the importance of seeking therapy — whether with a professional or through the network of firefighters and other first responders — to cope with the type of emotional trauma that comes from a job that involves a never-ending supply of horrific traffic accidents, fatal structure fires and harrowing medical calls.

As a supervisor, Carnes stresses the importance of talking about these situations and of sharing the emotional toll instead of repressing it.

“I don’t think there’s anybody (in the ECFR district) who would be ashamed to talk about their feelings,” Carnes said. “We encourage it here. We’ll come back from a call and talk about it, talk about how we feel. We keep an eye on each other. All of us are pretty comfortable opening up to each other. It’s like a family.”

Money woes force station closures, board to try again for levy lid lift

ECFR formed in 2006 after Clark County Fire District No. 1 merged with Clark County Fire District No. 9, and Carnes eventually moved into a paid leadership position within ECFR. He had been ECFR’s deputy fire chief for two years when the board decided to promote him to chief.

The district he oversees has moved away from being an all-volunteer outfit — mostly because it grew increasingly difficult to find people who were able to volunteer their time after working full-time and, in the ECFR area, often commuting to jobs in Vancouver or Portland.

Now the district gets most of its volunteers from a pool of candidates on their way toward becoming professional firefighters. Volunteers have shifts and work with paid firefighter/emergency medical technicians and no longer need to live inside the fire district.

Even with the volunteer-heavy force, ECFR still struggles to keep up with annual costs under the state-mandated 1-percent cap on annual property taxes.

Carnes has been saying for more than a year that the district has squeezed every last penny from its budget, tightening its belt despite a 52-percent increase in calls in the past decade.

In November 2018 midterm election, voters knocked down an ECFR request for a ‘levy lid lift,’ which basically would have restored the district to the $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property value (APV) levy rates passed by voters in 2008. The current rate had dropped to $1.29 per $1,000 in APV, meaning that a levy lid lift would have cost property owners an additional 21 cents per $1,000 APV per year. That worked out to an additional $7 a month for the owner of a $400,000 home.

After voters rejected the levy lid lift 54 to 46 percent, ECFR leaders said they would need to reevaluate the fire department’s operations and find places to make cuts.

Carnes said last week those cuts have already started.

“We’re browning out stations,” he said.

For instance, if someone is on vacation or ill or taking a mandatory “Kelly Day,” which is what it’s called when a firefighter has to take a day off to avoid going over his or her negotiated hours and earning overtime pay, a station might need to “be browned out” or closed, with available firefighters heading to the district’s Fire Station No. 93, a more centrally located station between Camas and Washougal off Northeast 312th Avenue.

Although centrally located, Station 93 could pose problems for calls coming from the “other side” or eastern side of the Washougal River. That’s because there are only two places for the fire engines to cross the river, Carnes said, and both routes add several minutes to the time it takes first responders to get to a fire or accident or emergency medical call.

Carnes said the district is having signs made to place on station doors when those buildings are browned out, instructing people to call 911 or go to Station 93. The fire chief said he also is trying to avoid browning out stations during weather events like the recent bouts of snow and ice, and will likely try to keep more stations open wildfire season.

Carnes said passing a levy lid lift is still critical to ECFR’s ability to serve the district effectively and to respond to approximately 2.5 emergency medical, traffic accidents or fire calls every day.

The ECFR board recently approved going out for the levy lid lift again, and will likely put the question to voters again in the Aug. 6 primary election.

“We’ve been belt-tightening,” Carnes said, “but there just is no other place to take money away at this point.”