Clark County’s rural fire district faces challenges to continue to serve its 40,000 residents and 90 square miles of service area
It’s no secret that serving area communities has become a greater challenge for fire districts around Clark County. Call volumes and monetary property losses due to fire are up significantly as area agencies battle the trends in the industry.
Clark County Fire District 3 officials haven’t asked voters in their district for more funds since voters approved a levy lid lift in the 2017 general election. The district does not have any new request for funding on this November’s general election ballot but one is certainly likely on the horizon.
Fire District 3 Chief Scott Sorenson and Rick Steele, chair of the district’s Board of Commissioners, sat down with Clark County Today recently to discuss the challenges facing the district.
“We want to inform you of some of the things we are facing, not just today but in the near future,’’ Steele said. “We don’t want to come out six months before we put it on the ballot.’’
Steele and Sorenson don’t know when that next funding request will come, but they know it will come. The district is in need of additional staffing, new equipment and apparatus, and in the near future a new station in the Highway 503 corridor.
Call volumes have steadily been on the rise in Fire District 3, which serves 40,000 residents and 90 square miles of rural Clark County, including the city of Battle Ground. Here’s a look at call volumes over the past six years in the district:
• 2016 — 3,570
• 2017 — 4,006
• 2018 — 4,221
• 2019 — 4,380
• 2020 — 4,155
• 2021 — 4,392 (estimate based on pace through June)
In terms of property loss due to fire in the district, losses have grown from $503,608 in 2017 to $1,514,570 through June of 2021.
In the 2017 general election, more than 62 percent of voters in the district approved a levy lid lift from $1.29 to $1.42 per $1,000 of assessed property value. It equated to an additional $4.33 per month ($52 per year) for a property valued at $400,000. The district’s Board of Commissioners could have approved a request of as much as $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property.
“We have completed all the projects we promised (staffing improvements, apparatus, and equipment replacement),’’ Sorenson said. “We also are working to increase staffing for Station 34 on Rawson Road. Annexation (into the city of Battle Ground) has been successful, we met promise there as well. Our goal was to improve service levels district-wide and become one, more capable emergency response agency. We were able to add 24-hour staffing at Station 32 in Venersborg and add a second 24-hour crew at Station 35 in the city.’’
“We feel that it’s very important we do everything voters have asked us to do,’’ Steele said, referring to the 2017 levy lid lift. “We feel we have done that and we want the voters to know that.’’
But, the rise in call volumes is beginning to create staffing challenges.
“Staffing continues to be an issue,’’ Sorenson said. “Call volumes are back to pre-COVID numbers. The past month has been some of or the highest yet. Our community has grown to the point that we are looking at three-person crews. We currently run mainly two-person crews. This need is identified in our Strategic Plan. Revenue is an issue, but so is recruitment. We’re struggling to fill the positions we have both volunteer and career.’’
Steele pointed out that justification for a new station in the Highway 503 area can be viewed with a simple drive along the heavily traveled route that connects Vancouver and North Clark County.
“The 503 area has experienced unbelievable growth,’’ Steele said. “A future station down there in the Brush Prairie area would provide good coverage in that corridor. It’s not only residential but industrial growth in that area that is of concern for us as a district. We have a hole there. When stuff starts getting built there, we will have to address that.’’
Fire District 3 officials have had discussions with members of the Clark County Council about impact fees that could help pay for that new station, but to this point, Steele and Sorenson said the councilors have not been receptive.
“New stations are not cheap,’’ Steele said. “In the next 5-10 years, we’re looking to build two fire stations. Those impact fees would help us tremendously with that project. Those impact fees are going to be critical for us.’’
Sorenson said he and his fellow Clark County fire chiefs are united on the issue of impact fees and they will continue to attempt to hold discussions with the members of the County Council.
Steele and his fellow commissioners have not made any new decisions on expenditures. They are currently considering options.