According to Fire Chief John Nohr, the first thing Clark County Fire & Rescue plans to do if their levy lid lift is approved by voters is re-staff Charter Oak, station 22, in north Battle Ground.
Earlier this year, Clark County Fire & Rescue’s Board of Fire Commissioners approved a 9-cent levy lid lift proposal, which will appear on ballots in August. If voters say yes, the levy would go from $1.41 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $1.50 and last for six years. The levy was set at $1.50 until this year.
Calls within Clark County Fire & Rescue’s coverage area have gone up over 10 percent since 2014. The district has reported increased response times and a revenue loss of more than $10 million since 2009, which resulted in the loss of 11 firefighters and seven administrators, pulling staff from two stations and cutting back a variety of community programs.
Since Battle Ground began contracting with Fire District 3 instead of Clark County Fire & Rescue at the beginning of 2016, covering the Charter Oak area has become more difficult since they no longer work out of the Battle Ground station.
Currently, Clark County Fire & Rescue’s Dollars Corner station responds to that area. Only if a call is a structure fire or high-level emergency would their mutual aid agreement with Fire District 3 kick in, bringing a response from both districts.
But even when Fire District 3 responds, it still isn’t as timely as it would be if Charter Oak were staffed.
“Everyone pays the same amount, and yet, our service levels are not even right now,” Nohr said.
When he first took the position of fire chief just over a year ago, Nohr quickly identified that area, and its coverage, as a problem.
“When I became chief in May 2016, I immediately became aware of the lack of consistent responses in the Charter Oak area of the district,” Nohr wrote in an email. “The problem was exacerbated by the change in service providers in Battle Ground. This meant that the primary CCF&R unit for response into the Charter Oak became Engine 26 from Dollars Corner. If Engine 26 is out on another incident, the closest unit comes from La Center, and sometimes from Ridgefield if La Center is also unavailable.”
He pointed to a recent motorcycle accident on State Route 503, less than a two-minute drive from the Charter Oak station.
FD3 was first on scene in about seven minutes and Clark County Fire & Rescue’s responders followed, taking 11 minutes from La Center.
Had Charter Oak been staffed, Nohr believes they could have had a responder on scene within minutes.
Furthermore, to add insult to injury, homeowners in the Charter Oak area will see their insurance rates increase from not having a fire station within five road miles.
“People in the Charter Oak area, more than five road miles from one of our stations, will see their rates go up,” Nohr said while comparing the rise in taxes one might see from the lid lift, with the hike in insurance they’ll see if it remains unstaffed.
Ready to roll
The physical station itself won’t need much preparation to become fully functional. It was remodeled in 2006-2007, but staffing was pulled in 2010 after the economic downturn.
In 2015, Clark County Fire & Rescue decided to put resident volunteer firefighters in the station, but since they weren’t certified to use the fire engine, only the rescue unit, paying their utilities proved to cost more than the service they offered and the station was soon vacant again.
Since taking over, Nohr has worked to utilize the station as best he can.
It is staffed with two firefighters on any day they have enough personnel, which has worked out to three to five days per month, and when North County was hit with a few snow and ice storms last winter, they dipped into overtime pay to staff the facility a few times.
“While it is very expensive to pay overtime to staff the station, the response times for the other units to reach that area while chained up were just too great to take the risk of having a 15-25 minute response,” he said in an e-mail, adding that units are limited to 25 mph when chained.
Because of how little use the station has had since its remodel, it will take little to no work to have it fully functional, which will allow them to have it staffed in early 2018 if voters say yes.
“We’ve got a brand new station up there,” said Fire Commissioner Jerry Kolke.
Clark County Fire & Rescue plans to hire nine new career firefighters if the levy passes, two of whom will be stationed at Charter Oak.
The district currently has four stations unstaffed, including Charter Oak. Their next priority will be to staff Ridgefield Junction, station 21, in the next few years if funding allows.