After mutiple wildfires, four city councilors and the mayor are skeptical of merger with Clackamas Fire

Clackamas Fire District

A majority of Estacada city councilors rescinded their endorsement for a proposed merger between Estacada Rural Fire District and Clackamas Fire during a meeting on Monday, Sept. 28.

The City Council previously endorsed the merger via a statement in the Clackamas County voters pamphlet, but in the aftermath of the Riverside and Dowty Road fires, Mayor Sean Drinkwine and councilors Jerry Tenbush, Justin Gates, Kimberlee Ables and Paul Strobel have stated they no longer support a merger with Clackamas Fire.

Drinkwine acknowledged Clackamas Fire's quick response times, but said that the issue is more complex than that.

"There are a lot of things that happened during this fire. I was on deck the whole time in the town. I saw the pullback. I saw everything that went on," he said. "I know Clackamas pretty well. I know their local response time has been great, but that's not the only issue we're looking at here and there's a lot more involved. We have to really consider that before we sign away everything that we are for a fire department that's not Estacada."

Estacada Rural Fire District

After entering into an intergovernmental agreement in 2016 through which Clackamas Fire provided fire prevention and training services to the Estacada Rural Fire District, the two agencies signed a contract for services at the beginning of this year.

In the contract, which lasts through June 30, 2021, Clackamas Fire staffs the Estacada Fire Station with three firefighters for all 24-hour shifts. Previously, Estacada Fire was only able to provide that level of coverage 68% of the time. The George Fire Station is staffed with additional volunteers, and Clackamas provides Estacada with 24-hour fire chief coverage.

The question of the merger will appear on the November ballot. To take effect, the integration will need to be approved by voters in both Clackamas and Estacada.

If the merger is approved, staffing at the Estacada Fire Station will increase to four people.

Last summer, a feasibility study from Emergency Services Consulting International (paid for by the Estacada and Clackamas fire districts) recommended the merger.

Community concerns

During the Sept. 28 Estacada City Council meeting, several community members who were involved in fighting the wildfires said they were unsatisfied with Clackamas Fire's performance.

"I cannot believe what has happened with Clackamas Fire in this fire, (and) just the level of disregard for our community," said George Youngberg, a longtime Estacada resident who was part of a group of volunteers battling the Riverside Fire near Fall Creek Road.

Youngberg said he was threatened with arrest for putting water on the flames, and added that Clackamas Fire did not immediately respond when he tried to share details about the incident.

Youngberg was part of a group of residents who fought flames from 10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9, to 6:30 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 10. When a fire crew reached Fall Creek Road on the morning of Sept. 10, Youngberg offered to share information because he had worked through the night on the scene.

Youngberg said his attempts to connect crews with these details were met with a lack of interest.

"Two minutes and I could have saved probably an hour of their time. I knew what we'd already put out (and) what was just in mop-up stage," Youngberg continued. "They could have driven 2 1/2 miles past all this stuff that didn't need attention and went directly to the fire that needed to be put out to save homes."

Eagle Creek-Barton Community Planning Organization president Brent Parries was also unsatisfied with the response from Clackamas Fire.

"We've been talking about how Clackamas Fire could best serve the community, and their lack of response, their lack of getting anything done, their lack of putting water on the fire," Parries told the Estacada City Council on Monday. "And, working in the rural areas that they have no idea even how to drive up the roads, it leads us to believe that Clackamas Fire probably can't get the job done. … Certainly, if it wasn't for the Youngbergs, I think we would have probably lost the southeast corner of Estacada. They kept fighting when all the firefighters ran out."

An additional concern expressed was the tactical pause called by the Oregon Fire Marshall's Office, during which crews were removed from active fire response for several hours because of concerns that the Riverside Fire would merge with the Beachie Creek Fire.

In a follow-up statement to the Estacada News, Clackamas Fire Captain Brandon Paxton said the agency is working to connect with community members to learn more about their interactions with firefighters, noting that they have heard concerns similar to Youngberg's.

"Clackamas Fire recognizes and appreciates that there are private resources in the community, and we are working on a plan to better understand the capabilities and how to put these resources to use. We have had the opportunity to connect with several property owners who are interested in working with us to develop a plan to utilize private resources for fires and other emergencies," Paxton wrote in an email.

Clackamas Fire currently works with volunteers through a Community Emergency Response Team and Support and Suppression Volunteer Program.

"Additionally, we are looking for ways to utilize private resources of community members and business owners to help during both local and large-scale emergencies," Paxton wrote.

Clackamas Fire and other responding agencies will perform a comprehensive internal After-Action Review that will examine areas where the agency performed well and areas that can need improvement. An executive summary outlining the lessons learned, challenges and areas to improve upon will be available to the public by Friday, Dec. 18.

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