OPINION: Oregon fire marshal plays negligent, risky game by ignoring investigative report
Most of us think of firefighters as heroes, and rightfully so. If there were ever any doubts about the self-sacrificing character of many of our nation's firefighters, they were swiftly erased following the events of Sept. 11, 2001 when as a nation we witnessed firefighters throwing themselves into the chaotic fray of terrorism's violent aftermath on the hope of rescuing just one more victim. We're seeing it again now with the mass effort of firefighters from all over to contain wildland fires in Oregon.
In Columbia County, our newsfeed is routinely defined by the good deeds of Scappoose Fire District and Columbia River Fire and Rescue, from weekly residential fire and paramedic response to the outpouring of charity initiatives.
Some, one could argue, consider it profane to even question firefighters' actions. They are beyond reproach through the very virtue of their chosen career path, though some would say pursuit of the trade is a calling rather than a choice — almost something sacred. Some undoubtedly feel the same about law enforcement or those who serve in the military.
We get it.
But holding such professions in high esteem does not justify an unwillingness to look beyond the badge when allegations of wrongdoing are raised. And it certainly doesn't justify the actions of a public agency, such as the Oregon Fire Marshal's Office, that chooses to stick its head in the sand and walk a path of willful ignorance at the risk of personnel under its command, as it appears to be doing regarding Ron Youngberg, a former CRFR division chief.
Recall when claims were directed at former Clatskanie police chief, Marvin Hoover. Rather than receive discipline for his actions, Clatskanie city leaders allowed Marvin Hoover to retire with four months' pay. Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl even penned a glowing letter in support of Marvin Hoover that was published in Clatskanie's weekly newspaper.
Marvin Hoover maintained he was not a racist despite two Clatskanie officers' claims he compared an African American woman to an animal and mocked her by dancing around like a monkey and whistling "Dixie," a Civil War-era Southern anthem, following her arrest in Rainier.
We have witnessed similar reaction with Youngberg, who was also allowed to retire following an investigation conducted by a private outside agency that found he had violated numerous CRFR policies, including harassment and sustained allegations he endangered CRFR firefighters during specific emergency response situations. CRFR officials, instead of decrying the actions as described in the investigative report and announcing policy changes to address them — as Washington Fish and Wildlife officials rightly did when a fish hatchery was found earlier this month via investigation to have an Ã¢â‚¬Å“extremely sexualized cultureÃ¢â‚¬Â that led to rape allegations — instead blamed whatever parties leaked the Youngberg report. A backward response and one indifferent to the firefighters who raised their concerns about Youngberg, many of whom later thanked the Spotlight for our reporting.
As an aside, Washington Fish and Wildlife willfully released the investigative report for public review, fired four employees, and addressed the findings in a press conference, whereas Columbia River Fire and Rescue did everything in its power to keep the Youngberg report secret and blame whoever leaked it.
It comes down to leadership.
It's inexcusable state Fire Marshal Jim Walker and his staff are taking an ostrich's approach to reviewing the investigative report on Youngberg, who remains second in command of the State Fire Marshal's Office Incident Command Team's Red Team. There are three teams — Blue, Red and Green — and each is placed on rotating duty to battle major fires as declared by the governor under the state's Emergency Conflagration Act. To qualify for service on a team, each team member must have a sponsoring agency. With Youngberg's employment at CRFR over, he received sponsorship as a volunteer firefighter from Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department.
The Youngberg investigative document, on which we reported in July, is available for public viewing on the Spotlight's website.
When asked late last month about whether the state Fire Marshal's Office had reviewed, or even intended to review, the report, Richard Hoover, a spokesman for the state Fire Marshal's Office, said the office was aware there had been an investigation, but because the Columbia County District Attorney's Office had determined the report stemming from the investigation was an attorney-client privileged document following an earlier petition for it by the Spotlight, the state agency was refusing to look at it.
Despite the DA's decision of attorney-client privilege, once a report is received and reported on by media, there are no legal restrictions preventing the Fire Marshal's Office from reviewing the document. In fact, many people have. The only thing preventing Walker, Richard Hoover or others with the Oregon Fire Marshal's Office from reading and considering it is their own desire for ignorance of the situation. Or, perhaps, they fear reading the report and having knowledge of what it contains would create a liability, and hence would result in even more vacancies on the Incident Command Team's rosters.
We're now in the heart of wildfire season. It's the time of year the state Fire Marshal's Office calls up Incident Command Teams and support agencies available to him to battle wildland fires wherever they may occur in Oregon. As we see this week, CRFR and Scappoose fire agencies are engaged with either personnel or resources in the Milli Fire near Sisters. With the Chetco Bar Fire in southern Oregon named the nation's top priority fire, it's reasonable to expect more local involvement if it's not soon contained.
Given the Fire Marshal Office's blithe ignorance of the Youngberg report, and Youngberg's position as a deputy incident command team leader, can we expect CRFR firefighters who spoke with investigators about Youngberg to again be placed under his command? It's very possible. And that, after reading the report — something the Fire Marshal's Office refuses to do — is a potentially hazardous, combustible mix.
UPDATE: Following publication of this editorial, Richard Hoover, a spokesman for the state Fire Marshal's Office, on Friday, Aug. 25, notified the Spotlight that the agency has now reviewed the investigative document regarding Youngberg and that Youngberg has been placed on stand-down status, meaning he is ineligible at this time to be deployed.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the Incident Command Team on which Youngberg serves. He serves on the blue team.