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Friends of Estacada Fire encourages voters to say no to a merger with Clackamas Fire in next month's election

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Signs supporting and opposing a merger of Estacada and Clackamas Fire Districts can be found in downtown Estacada.

In the aftermath of the Riverside and Dowty Road wildfires, a proposed merger between Estacada Rural Fire District and Clackamas Fire is under scrutiny by some Estacada community members.

Friends of Estacada Fire, a group formed last month, is encouraging voters to say no to measures 3-561 and 3-560, which ask constituents of Estacada Fire and Clackamas Fire areas about the merger. For the consolidation to take effect, Measure 3-561 would need to be approved by Estacada area voters, and Measure 3-560 would need to be approved by Clackamas voters.

"If this goes through, it's taxation without representation. We'll have no voice. If we stay Estacada Fire, at least we'll have a say," said George Youngberg, an Estacada resident who was one of many community members involved in fighting the wildfires. "We have to have a say to help protect ourselves."

Youngberg previously expressed his concerns during a Sept. 28 Estacada City Council meeting, during which the majority of councilors withdrew their support for the merger.

"I cannot believe what has happened with Clackamas Fire in this fire, (and) just the level of disregard for our community," he said during the meeting.

Youngberg was part of a group of volunteers battling the Riverside Fire near Fall Creek Road.

He said Clackamas Fire was hesitant to work with community members, adding he heard someone say, "I wish these loggers wanna be firemen would get the hell off Fall Creek Road" on the fire department's scanner.

"There was a total disregard for the locals helping. They didn't want us there," Youngberg said.

During the same City Council meeting, Eagle Creek-Barton Community Planning Organization President Brent Parries also expressed dissatisfaction 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 Oct. 5. "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."

Youngberg thinks an Estacada-based fire department would be able to better harness the resources that are available in the community.

"We'll build relationships with the community and the fire department so when this happens again, they know who owns the dozers, the excavators and the water tankers," he said. "Having those assets in our community is huge. We have to be able to use those local assets."

Estacada Rural Fire District Director John McAdoo also emphasized the value of collaborating with the community. McAdoo is not a member of Friends of Estacada Fire, but supports the group's mission and was the sole vote against putting the question of a merger on the ballot when it was considered by Estacada Fire's Board of Directors.

"Whenever there's a big disaster, it's good to have citizens who want to step up and help out. I'm all for that. Sometimes they might not have the proper training, but I believe you have to work with them," McAdoo said.

Youngberg said a fire department based in Estacada would have increased investment in the community.

"They know the area, and they know the people," he said. "They'll fight harder to protect people. Clackamas Fire has no connection to the community."

Clackamas Fire Capt. 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.

Estacada Rural Fire District Directors Matthew Silva, Ken Oliver, John Bresko and Ed Thoreson recently reaffirmed their support of the merger.

"The upcoming merger is about much more than a once in a century fire event. It's about the 1,500+ emergencies that occur in our community annually. After evaluating the data, the financial reality, the firefighting staffing opportunities, our history as an agency, and completing a comprehensive feasibility study on future options, all facts point to this merger being in the best interests of our citizens, our businesses, our Fire District, and our community's future," the group stated in a letter to the editor in Oct. 15 Estacada News.

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 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.

A joint oversight committee, consisting of representatives from both Estacada and Clackamas Fire, will meet after the Nov. 3 election to discuss the next steps based on the voter response to measures 3-561 and 3-560.

Past collaboration

Estacada Rural Fire District and Clackamas Fire first entered into an intergovernmental agreement in 2016, through which Clackamas provided fire prevention and training services in Estacada. In a later version of the IGA, these services expanded to include response units to ensure effective response to fires and other incidents; advanced life support staffing, which is the highest level of pre-hospital field care; and a joint operational plan for water tender operators and rehab volunteers.

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.

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.

"The service and resources provided by the larger fire district would result in improved administrative and operational coordination; enhanced support and program delivery; enhanced emergency operations; and a wider range of career opportunities for the Estacada employees," the study states, also noting that apparatuses deployed from the Estacada station can more quickly access the service areas of Clackamas Stations 12, 18 and 20.

In 2018, prior to both boards of directors agreeing to the full feasibility study, Estacada's board had agreed to conduct a study that explored the services they share with Clackamas Fire and ways in which they could be expanded or reduced, but not consider the possibility of merging the two districts, citing a desire from the public to keep local control of the fire district.

Because of this, Clackamas previously had given notice that it intended to withdraw from the IGA. That same year, a recall petition was filed for Estacada Fire Directors McAdoo, Matthew Silva, Ed Thoreson and John Bresko because they had, at the time, declined to move forward with the full study. Signatures for the recall were not submitted. In early 2019, both boards of directors agreed to the full feasibility study.

Services under a merger

From January through August 2019, Estacada Fire's average response time from dispatch to arrival of the first fire unit was 8 minutes and 24 seconds. From January through August 2020, Estacada's average response under the contract for service with Clackamas Fire was 8 minutes and 4 seconds.

Both Silva and Clackamas Fire board member Jim Syring emphasized the value of having four firefighters on all shifts in Estacada — something that will occur if the merger is approved.

OSHA standards mandate that prior to firefighters entering a hazardous fire or rescue incident, there must be two other firefighters outside of the dangerous area to initiate a rescue of the crew members inside if need be. Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association code 1710 requires a minimum of four firefighters while performing interior, structural firefighting operations.

"The '2 in 2 out' technical definition in simple terms means that unless you have a four-person crew on the very first fire engine pulling up to a fire, you don't go in. It's that simple," Syring said. "In our case, where Estacada is a more remote location separated by distance from other community fire stations, '2 in 2 out' is even more critical and does not exist even today under the current Clackamas Fire three-person crew contract for service staffing deployment.

"This opportunity to permanently come into NFPA and OSHA four-person staffing compliance with a yes merger vote for no additional taxes is an amazing opportunity that most agencies in our nation would never have the ability to attain and should not be minimized."

Syring added that the staffing increase is particularly beneficial in an expanding community like Estacada.

"The facts are that Estacada Fire, due to budget constraints, only guaranteed two firefighters on duty at a time and struggled to get three. In today's world for a growing community like Estacada with a downtown core, that is unacceptable, plain and simple. Guaranteed staffing must be fully provided and maintained by fire agencies and from there, volunteers supplement if they are available," he said.

Silva said the merger "makes sense from a lot of perspectives," citing the increased staffing and volunteers available through Clackamas Fire.

"I believe it's the right thing to do, but if the voters say no, that means no," he added.

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