Clark County Fire District 3 Chief Steve Wrightson admits he’s nervous about finally hanging up his helmet. After more than four decades as a firefighter and nearly three decades with the district, he announced his intent to retire last month.
“I’ve never done this before, so it’s kind of awkward for me. I’ve done fire for 42 years and it kind of defines me,” Wrightson said.
He said now was the time to retire. A battle with pancreatic cancer in 2015 was a wake-up call for him to spend more time with his family, one of several activities he has lined up for when he doesn’t have to put on his uniform anymore.
Key plans and places included learning how to play the piano, re-learning Spanish, using his senior pass to National Parks for free trips to landmarks across the nation, riding his bike, hiking, and possibly visiting famous baseball parks across the nation.
Wrightson was first hired in February, 1989. An article in The Reflector the time detailed that he moved from a position in Clark County Fire District 5.
Clark County Fire District 3 Commission Chair John Couture told a story that back when Wrightson was first hired, volunteer crews would respond to calls for the night shift of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Wrightson would help support the volunteers during six months while living in his father’s camper at the district’s Fire Station 3 near Battle Ground Lake.
Couture had been a volunteer firefighter for roughly as long as Wrightson had been chief, though now he holds a position on the district’s elected governing body. At one point Wrightson and Couture were neighbors, competing for the most amount of call responses (Wrightson said Couture managed to beat him slightly).
Both Couture and Wrightson touched on the changes over the years, both in the county and the department. There were about 40 volunteers and five paid firefighters when Wrightson started. Nowadays the district has 43 paid staff members and about 15 volunteers.
Call volume has increased. In Wrightson’s tenure the district went from 250 to more than 4,000 calls a year. Advancements in technology were evident in radio improvements, the introduction of cell phones, and advancements in the community the district served meant the department had to change.
“We didn’t need a ladder truck back in 1989,” Wrightson said.
What was once largely a rural district now has taller buildings and apartment complexes.
Under Wrightson’s leadership the district made several improvements. One of Wrightson’s biggest recent projects was using the smallest rig possible for call responses for greater efficiency.
Back in 1990 the district started producing and implementing a strategic plan, Wrightson said. The plan, updated every few years, has provided the backbone of consistency that has been in the department, fostering a culture in the district where every member of staff had input into the organization via the plan.
“I always tell the guys, you can make a new relationship every day, whether it’s somebody that walks in the station, or somebody on the street, whatever; that’s our job, to build relationships with the community,” he said.
Although Wrightson has held the position since 1989, the incoming chief, Scott Sorenson, is no stranger on how the district operates. Sorenson has been a part of the district in some form since 1979, now currently assistant chief until Wrightson officially steps down.
Other improvements included the addition of paramedics along with EMTs, one of the improvements that has helped the homeowners insurance rating for those in the district drop from a Class 6 to a 4, which results in lower fire insurance rates.
Contracting for Battle Ground’s fire service has also helped the district since the agreement started in 2016.
“We were in Battle Ground a lot before on mutual aid,” Wrightson said, adding that with the contract the department has better control of their resources.
“It’s working; much better service for the whole fire district,” Wrightson said.
As one of his last pushes Wrightson and the department has been working on education for district voters on a proposed levy lid lift on the district’s property tax levy. The ballot measure would raise the district’s levy from $1.29 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $1.42 per $1,000 in order to maintain levels of service.
“I want to hand off a really strong, well-funded and solid organization,” Wrightson said about the measure. “It’s a personal goal, I guess, but it’s best for the community.”
Though times have changed, some things have remained the same. Wrightson said the district still puts on annual pancake breakfasts, going from 400 attendees at the first outing to 3,000-plus.
Couture commented on Wrightson’s character, saying it was hard to explain how he was able to be “everything to everybody.”
“He was a guy you could never out-give or never out-do, because he was always beating you to the punch,” Couture said.
At one point, Wrightson had written a letter of recognition and support he sent to Couture’s boss at the time, unsolicited, as a way to show that their employee was doing good things and saving lives in Clark County.
“He was not only my leader, he was also my friend,” Couture said.
The culture Wrightson fostered meant that volunteers like Couture and the career firefighters all were well-represented in the district.
“You were never treated any different than if you got a paycheck from them,” Couture said.
Countless stories of calls, both good and bad, will remain with Wrightson past retirement. Some ended up humourous, like a botched attempt to speak Spanish to a motorist who wound up in a ditch that inadvertently led Wrightson to tell the individual he was already dead. Wrightson was trying to say that they were taking him to the hospital.
Some memories are more touching. The other day Wrightson received a card from a couple thanking the chief and the department for resuscitating one half of the pair, as the woman was in total cardiac arrest when Fire District 3 arrived on the scene.
“He gets to spend retirement with his wife,” Wrightson said, mentioning that the card featured a picture of the couple. “The thing that meant the most was that picture.”
Wrightson was thankful for the district community for letting him have his successful career.
“I wouldn’t have had it (career) without the support of the community,” Wrightson said. “It’s (who) I always felt I worked for.”