CCFD3 preparing for wildfire season without Larch Crews


Clark County Fire District 3 (CCFD3) is heading into the summer wildfire season with a typical approach, but the loss of Larch inmate fire crews still looms.

The Larch Corrections Center, east of Hockinson, went into a “warm closure” in October 2023, with inmates no longer staying in the minimum-security facility. Among the inmates at the corrections center were inmate wildland fire crews that served the southwest Washington region.

Now, that resource is no longer readily available. Scott Sorenson, fire chief for CCFD3, Sorenson said the fire district is entering the season like usual, especially with forecasters saying this summer will be similar to last year’s.

“We’ve done a few things to maximize our capabilities the best we can,” Sorenson said. “First of all, in the west side of Washington, we’ve been seeing higher and drier conditions leading to drought or more fuel from dead vegetation in the late summer. So that’s been leading to longer and more active fire seasons, especially on the west side, but we don’t know for sure what this year is going to look like.”

Based on the state’s low snowpack and forecasts for a dry and warm summer, in April, the Washington department of Ecology declared a drought emergency for most of the state, including Clark County, as well.

Sorenson added that the area isn’t a stranger to wildfires, nor are the agencies in Clark County and throughout the region. Sorenson referenced the Nakia Creek Fire of 2022 in the Yacolt Burn State Forest right near the Larch Corrections Center as an example of a recent wildfire where Larch inmate crews were utilized with CCFD3.

“As far as the Larch closure goes, what it means is I think we will see longer response times from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and that results in more risk to our rural and urban interface area,” Sorenson said. “And then as well, if we’re on those incidents, then that’s pulling resources out of other areas and impacting responses in the more populated area.”

Sorenson said DNR will have a 10-person crew in Clark County, but service levels from the one crew will only make up a portion of what Larch inmate crews provided. He added that CCFD3 will maximize staff, training and prevention with the overarching idea of fighting a wildland fire without nearby crews always at the ready.

If CCFD3 is on a wildland fire with multiple crews, people can expect longer fire district response times to the regular call load, he said.

“This particular issue is one of the issues we’re trying to deal with in the levy coming up, proposition five, [the vote for] which is Aug. 6,” Sorenson said, adding a levy lid lift is approaching on the August ballot. “If it is successful, we will staff Station 34 full time, and that provides for better response time, more personnel to deal with some of these incidents that happen up towards Larch Mountain in this urban interface setting. But the problem is, as costs increase, we have to reduce, we currently are reduced and aren’t filling vacant positions. So without the lid lift, we’re going to reduce numbers even more in the future.”

For this wildfire season, Sorenson said area fire agencies have worked with the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) to ensure evacuation messages are more precise, adding that notifications weren’t clear for the Nakia Creek Fire.

He also said CCFD3 is improving its wildland fire strike teams with the experience gained from the Nakia Creek Fire in 2022 as well as assisting on the Jenny Creek Fire in 2023.

For the Nakia Creek Fire, Sorenson said three strike teams were put together quickly, each consisting of five resources. The resources can include a team of just brush engines or a team of structural engines, each with a team leader. The wildland fire task force is similar but includes mixed resources, which can include a brush engine, structural engine, water tender and other units, Sorenson said.

To help gain experience fighting wildfires, Sorenson said CCFD3 contracts personnel to help other communities in large incidents, adding to wildland fire training.

“So we do have people here that have experienced a lot of fire,” Sorenson said. “That makes us better at the job when it happens here.”