Our Opinion: A salute to our firefighters
With Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston's fire chief departing last week for a job in education administration, now seems like as good a time as any to honor our firefighters.
We've written in these pages before about how it seems police get all the attention — for good and for bad — while firefighters draw little controversy and little publicity. Both police and firefighters provide essential and lifesaving services, of course, but firefighters are too often underappreciated.
We know that local firefighters stood in the path of wildfires when they flared up in Washington County just a few months ago. In September 2020, Oregon experienced its most devastating month of fires on record, but professional and volunteer firefighters alike were here to answer the call.
The quick response of our firefighters, aided by air tanker sorties out of Salem, crushed the Powerline Fire near Henry Hagg Lake before it could destroy homes and businesses. A few miles to the east, they held the line against the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire, which burned just three structures — and no houses — and was checked before it could threaten Newberg, the nearest population center.
The fire activity was unprecedented in Oregon. But many of our firefighters, including Forest Grove Fire Chief Michael Kinkade, had practice.
Oregon's firefighters responded in 2017 and 2018, when California called for aid as it battled major wildfires late into the year. Kinkade led one of 15 "strike teams" from Oregon, deploying for more than two weeks to combat fires in December 2017. Firefighters returned a few days before Christmas, but Kinkade said they had been prepared to stay through the holiday.
Kinkade previously led Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and the Cornelius Fire Department in responding to the Scoggins Creek Fire, which burned across more than 200 acres near Hagg Lake in September 2014. Less than a year later, the Gaston Rural Fire District named him as its chief as well.
Wildfires are a raw and frightening expression of nature's power. We can communicate nearly instantaneously from opposite sides of the globe; we possess the power to destroy the planet multiple times over; we have created life by cloning animals from single cells; we have sent men to the Moon and robotic spacecraft to Venus, Mars, Titan and even the surfaces of comets. But when wildfires burn across Oregon, California and Washington's forestlands and plains, we pray for rain.
Firefighters know when they're fighting the awesome forces of Mother Nature, that Mother Nature herself is their best ally. In 2014, Kinkade's assessment of the Scoggins Creek Fire was frank: "It wasn't great firefighting that stopped it. It was the weather patterns." Officials responded similarly when a massive fire complex in Clackamas and Marion counties stopped just short of Estacada, Molalla and Stayton — the winds shifted just in the nick of time, or things might have been much worse.
Humility is a virtue, as they say. But don't let firefighters tell you they don't make a difference.
Fighting fires is hard, whether it's in a forest or in someone's home. Firefighters need to assess the conditions and extrapolate possibilities as quickly as possible based on a lot of unknown variables: What is the layout? How much fuel does the fire have to consume? Are there any hazards in the vicinity?
Quick thinking and courage save lives, and those are key attributes for any first responder.
We respect Chief Kinkade in particular because he has always seen the big picture, not just when it comes to fighting a fire, but in equipping our region to fight them.
Kinkade accepted the job of chief of Forest Grove Fire & Rescue in 2008, coming to town after years of working in management at fire agencies in Lebanon and Corvallis. He was tapped to take the helm of the Cornelius Fire Department in 2010, then Gaston in 2015.
Kinkade has long been an advocate of merging the fire agencies under his command into a unified fire district, akin to Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. The agencies already share resources, both at the command level and on the ground under the principle of mutual aid. But they have different governing structures — confusingly, Forest Grove and Cornelius actually have their city councils making decisions for the urban part of the fire agency and separate boards governing the rural fire protection districts in the surrounding unincorporated area — and different budgets. That means lots of decision points, lots of bureaucratic obstacles in the way of shifting around resources to meet the community's needs, and lots of people to look over the fire chief's shoulder. Kinkade once used the analogy of the frog in a pot of water, getting hotter and hotter.
"I'm the frog," he said, raising his hand, at a town meeting in 2018. "Ribbit."
That year, with the blessing of the five governing bodies, Kinkade began leading a series of meetings to explore the possibility of merging the fire agencies. While that proposal hasn't yet come to fruition, we agree with Kinkade that the agencies should keep at it in Kinkade's absence, creating a more efficient fire district able to serve the entire community.
We have seen firsthand the importance of our firefighters — heroes putting themselves in harm's way for the sake of the people they serve. We salute the service of Chief Kinkade to western Washington County and places far beyond, and we wish him well in his new role at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. And we hope this is the year that, with the guidance of interim Chief Patrick Fale, the fire agencies of Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston finally move toward unification in the common interest of our firefighters and the people who live here.
Regardless of what uniform they wear, though, remember to appreciate your local firefighters.
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