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Local crews fight blazes in Oregon, Washington and California, providing relief to neighbors.

PMG PHOTO: SCOTT KEITH - Firefighters Garth Levin, Mike Maginn, Brian DuBois and Keith Mathews just returned from California firesIn this year of COVID-19 and seemingly endless wildfires, the Scappoose Fire District has been multi-tasking at a level unlike just about any year.

"I think Scappoose is at a turning point — mostly because of changes to the community, in terms of growth, in terms of diversity," Fire Chief Jeff Pricher said. "It's an awesome opportunity to be able to pick up where Chief Mike Greisen handed off the baton."

Pricher said goals include stabilizing district staffing, stabilizing the budget process, streamlining services to district ratepayers and to "continue to provide the excellent service that our community knows us for."

But then wildfires started popping up along the West Coast.

"Initially, the summer was a series of transitions for our organization," said Pricher, who took over as interim fire chief in June, around the time the Scappoose Fire District and Columbia River Fire & Rescue broke off an intergovernmental agreement and resumed operating independently of one another.

Pricher explained, "We had to account for a lot of growth internally. When we added the wildfires, towards the latter half of the summer, it definitely challenged our staffing because there were multiple requests by the state to have folks respond to our communities in Oregon, and then also out of state."

The Scappoose Fire District provided assistance at a number of wildfires this summer, including the Sweet Creek, Holiday Farm, Archie Creek, Mosier Creek, Clackamas Complex, Slater, Lionshead and Evans Canyon fires, as well as the massive August Complex in California.

"The August Complex was classified as a 'gigafire,' which is larger than a 'megafire' due to its 1,032,638 acres in size," Pricher said. "This fire is the largest fire in California state history."

Pricher added, "Volunteer and career staff spent over 100 days combined on fires from our department."

A crew from the August Complex returned to the Scappoose Fire Station Friday, Nov. 6.

"They went down to fulfill a role, working for the medical unit leader and the safety officer," Pricher said. "The specific function that they filled is called REMS (Rapid Extraction Module Support). They are a group of four highly trained fire fighters who also provide rope rescue and advanced life support medical, to be on standby to rescue firefighters who either get hurt or trapped on these large fires."

Pricher said it's a concept that was started in California just prior to the Rough Fire in 2015.

"It's gaining momentum, but ultimately, the skillset that our rescuers have acquired locally here is able to help out the larger effort nationally," Pricher said.

Two of the REMS members have been serving in California for 40 days.

Pricher said his department went through three crew rotations for this assignment.

"Initially, our team was made up of staff from Vernonia Fire and from Scappoose Fire," Pricher said.

Pricher stressed that his department never went below its minimum staffing level at home even while working on the wildfires.

"We were always able to provide for our community before we helped out our neighbors," he said, adding, "This was made possible due to the efforts of fire district's dedicated staff to work countless hours of overtime. The support staff at home was just as important as those that deployed, as they were able to keep the station staffed."

Pricher continued: "We're very proud of our volunteers. We're very proud of the crew that's coming back. We're extremely humbled by our opportunity to support our northern and southern neighbors — we're thankful that we have support from the community to be able to support our neighbors."

Pricher also expressed thanks to state Sen. Betsy Johnson for her efforts in helping transport the fire crew to California.

Instead of a 12-hour drive to California, Johnson proposed using an aircraft from TransWestern Aviation, a Scappoose company managed by her husband, John Helm.

"When we did the math and the numbers, instead of having people drive 12 hours, we could get them down in an hour and a half, which was incredible," Pricher said. "She helped coordinate the flight. She worked with TransWestern to make the flight happen."

The concept of mutual aid means fire agencies provide support to one another with serious incidents, with the expectation that it's a two-way street.

Gazing ahead to the future, Pricher said, "Someday we're going to have something big here, and it's going to take people from outside of the area, even outside the state. If we're not willing to help out others when we can, how can we expect to get help from our neighbors?"


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