State of the ECFR District: The Year of the Nakia Creek Fire

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Every year since 2015, East County Fire & Rescue (ECFR)’s board chair has submitted this column as a special outreach to our citizens, as well as those in the areas we provide mutual aid (Camas, Washougal, Skamania County, Vancouver, etc.) This year is one to start out with the following warning: “Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

ECFR’s Fire Chief Mike Carnes announced he would retire at the end of 2022, giving us a year to find a new chief. Chief Carnes served the District in many capacities for 25 years, and we wish him a very happy retirement. We went through the recruitment process early on, with our initial response being one applicant. The applicant was well qualified — so much so that, after we offered the position to him, he accepted another position at an agency in Oregon.

We posted the Chief’s position once again, this time casting a wider net, which garnered five very qualified candidates. Interviews were conducted, first remotely and then a second in-person interview with three of the candidates. The final choice was Chief Edward Hartin, formerly of Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue, who has 48 years of experience, most recently as a fire chief. He hit the ground running, even before finding a home in the district, tackling his new position on Jan. 1. Yes, it was a holiday, but Chief Hartin showed up to get his office organized and dig into the heart of the organization.

Ongoing pandemic issues lingered. We continued to follow the COVID-19 protocols as they changed. In December 2022, we were able to begin having Board meetings at Station 91, masks ready for those who needed them. It was strange to see my colleagues in person once again after almost three years of all virtual meetings. We invested in technology so that those commissioners and citizens who wished to attend virtually could do so. We wrestled to get things working. We have kept things as simple as possible, while still enabling both in-person and virtual public meetings.

In July, the board authorized a major purchase of approximately $215,000, one that we had carefully planned and saved for in our reserves. We purchased 20 new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) and 40 air bottles. This was to replace old, out-of-date equipment and ensure the safety of our firefighters. We are now using the same system as other Clark County fire districts and departments.

On Aug. 27, ECFR held our first open house since 2019. It was a huge success, well attended by more than 300 citizens. The event included presentations by CRESA, Life Flight, the fire marshall and a live fire-sprinkler demonstration, showing it took less than two minutes for an inferno without the sprinklers. The kids enjoyed the bouncy house, a bubble machine, ice-cream and popcorn, and being wheeled around in our ECFR kid-sized fire engine. People were able to view and learn about our apparatus, such as the fire engines and rescue squad trucks.

ECFR had the required state audit and passed with no major issues and a few opportunities for improvement. We are proud and grateful to our administrative staff and fire chief for making sure that we follow protocol, meet our legal obligations, and are diligent in stewarding the district’s finances.

This also was the year of the wildfire. For the first time, a wildfire mobilization was requested for Clark County, and it was in our district. ECFR became the headquarters for teams to work and live while fighting this apparently human-caused fire during the driest part of an extremely dry autumn. The Nakia Creek Fire originally started on Oct. 9, and spread predominantly on Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) lands southeast of Larch Mountain. Initially, the fire was 156 acres and partly contained. Then, east winds kicked up on Oct. 15, creating a firestorm that grew to 1,500 acres in just 24 hours. With the addition of gusty winds, it “exploded,” as Chief Carnes described when he called me to request authorization for wildfire mobilization or “mobe,” which, of course, I granted.

On Oct. 17, over 50 people were deployed from the Oregon Department of Forestry Incident Management Team 2. The Team set up headquarters at ECFR’s Station 91 near Grove Field Airport. Ground support as well as aircraft were utilized to contain the fire. Homes were within 1,800 feet of being destroyed before the winds turned direction, and firefighters were able to protect threatened structures, with no losses. Residents in the Red Level 3 (“Go Now”) evacuation zone were notified to evacuate, some for up to three days. Tensions ran high for those in the Yellow Level 2 (“Be ready”) zone. Animals were relocated to the Clark County Fairgrounds or to private facilities out of the red or yellow zones.

Some statistics on the Nakia Creek Fire:

  • 36,685 structures threatened with none lost
  • 12 aviation resources used
  • 41 helicopter flight hours
  • $6.8 million was the total estimated cost

We were fortunate in the end. As summers get hotter and drier, it is more important than ever to be careful with ignition sources during dry or windy weather. All ECFR District residents are encouraged to learn how to make their home and property resistant to wildfire, using resources such as the Firewise program.

With all of that, our professional firefighters were busy throughout the year running calls for a total of 1,091 calls for 2022. As usual, most of our calls are for medical service in addition to fires and motor vehicle accidents. We are happy to help!

Members of the ECFR Board and administrative staff were able to attend the annual Washington Fire Commissioners Association Conference in person later in October in Spokane. And commissioners continued to be fiscally responsible in their decisions with the budget and finances while keeping the level of service as high as possible.

There is more, of course. This is only an overview of how your District is doing. We encourage citizens to attend our Board of Fire Commissioners meetings either virtually or in person at Station 91. Meetings are at 6:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.

ECFR is the 60-square-mile fire and rescue district located directly north of the cities of Camas and Washougal.

Dr. Martha Martin is a fire commissioner and chairperson for East County Fire & Rescue Board of Commissioners. She has served on the ECFR Board since 2012.