Camas mayor names fire chief

Cliff Free, the Camas-Washougal Fire Department’s interim chief, will move into permanent role in November

The Camas-Washougal Fire Department has a new fire chief.

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan announced this week that he has selected interim Fire Chief Cliff Free to fill the role on a permanent basis.

Free has worked with the Camas-Washougal Fire Department since 2005, and was the department’s division chief for emergency medical services since 2012.

“Those that know Cliff, know he’s dedicated to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department and to the cities of Camas and Washougal,” said Hogan.

The announcement followed a nationwide search for a new fire chief following CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart’s unexpected resignation on March 8.

In early October, Hogan announced his top four fire chief finalists — Free, along with Shaun Ford, the fire chief of the North Country EMS & Clark County Fire District 13, in Yacolt; Scott Goldstein, a fire chief from Montgomery County, Maryland; and Jay Wittwer, a fire chief in Tukwila, Washington — and invited the community to meet the finalists at Lacamas Lake Lodge on Oct 12.

“While the other candidates were stellar, Cliff had everything we need currently and everything we want for the future,” Hogan said this week. “We’re very excited to see what he’ll bring to the department.”

The Camas City Council is expected to confirm Free’s appointment at its Nov. 7 meeting.

The department’s former fire chief, Swinhart, resigned in March “to pursue other opportunities” and has since taken a fire chief position with the Key Peninsula Fire Department in Lakebay, Washington, west of Tacoma.

Before his departure, Swinhart, who had been with the local fire department since 2011, challenged the Camas City Council to increase the fire department’s staffing levels, saying in 2021 and again in early 2022, that the fire department’s chronic understaffing was beginning to take a toll on Camas-Washougal firefighters.

“The group is at a breaking point,” Swinhart told council members during their annual planning retreat in February 2022. “Working 60 hours a week is not sustainable in the long term.”

And staffing challenges aren’t the only critical issue the new Camas-Washougal fire chief will have to battle. In November 2021, a consultant’s report showed the local fire department needs to replace two facilities — including its downtown Camas headquarters, which does not meet the guidelines of an “essential facility” and would not withstand a major earthquake — as soon as possible and build a third fire station in Camas within the next decade.

Another consultant report, released in June, also showed the current partnership that merged the Camas and Washougal fire departments in 2013, “has too many gaps to represent a sustainable model moving forward.” Instead, consultants told officials in both cities, Camas-Washougal leaders should consider going to voters to form a regional fire authority (RFA) that would continue to provide fire and emergency medical services to the entire Camas-Washougal region without burdening the individual cities’ general funds.

Free has said he believes the two cities should stick together — possibly through an RFA — when it comes to providing fire and emergency medical services.

“(The Camas-Washougal partnership) is extremely valuable for all of East Clark County,” Free told city officials in June, adding that, if the Camas and Washougal fire departments were to form their own, individual fire departments, it would “reduce service levels” to not just Camas and Washougal but also to residents in the East County Fire and Rescue district north of Camas and Washougal.

“We are all the protection that is really offered for all of East Clark County,” Free said.