“We’re nervous whenever we see the weather like this,” said Mike Carnes, Department Chief, East County Fire & Rescue.

The Eagle Creek fire started September 2 in the Columbia River Gorge. The fire has consumed some 35,000 acres at time of press and is still burning. This fire released embers that jumped the Gorge, causing a “spot fire” on Archer Mountain, the Washington side, in Skamania County on September 4.

Local units in Clark County were standing by, and sending personnel and equipment as requested.

“There was a spot on the Washington side,” said Carnes. It grew from 35 acres to 100 before being controlled and pushed eastward by winds. “We did have a squad and a tender as a mutual aid because we border Skamania County.”

Carnes is in charge of a $1.6 million budget and he covers 60 square miles with five fire stations which are served by career and volunteer firefighters.

archer mountain fire
Photo courtesy: Department of Natural Resources

“They actually requested another squad and I couldn’t do it,” Carnes said. “I still have to cover the 60 square miles. I have to make that decision based on what people and apparatus I have available.”

They were released from duty when the burn came under the purview of the Department of Natural Resources that manages all lands not directly served by a fire station.

The Camas-Washougal Fire Department also responded to the Archer Mountain fire. “They asked for a structural engine, which we sent and they sent back pretty quickly,” Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said.

“The fire was eight to ten miles from the county line. Our phone rang off the hook, there were a lot of people concerned,” Swinhart said. But he notes, “There were no warnings or evacuations. There were no spot fires caused by the Archer Mountain fire.”

Clark County has a strike team out, but they’re somewhere in the middle of the state, not at the Eagle Creek fire.

Carnes and Swinhart are aware that being vigilant and using resources well is part of the job. Sometimes that means using volunteers.

Also standing by are the volunteers from the Citizens Emergency Response Team, also known as CERT.

columbia gorge fire
Paula Knapp drove the red pumper truck (left) to deliver water to fire fighting crews during the Archer Mountain fire. The fire started with embers that crossed the Columbia River Gorge into Washington. Photo courtesy: Paula Knapp

“We push CERT, ”said Carnes. CERT volunteers undergo twenty hours of FEMA curriculum training on disaster preparedness.

Conducting the training and communication for the standing body of CERT volunteers is Paula and Rick Knapp.

Ironically this married couple of 40 years met during a super typhoon in Guam where winds were over 200 miles per hour. They were both in the Navy and when they retired they continued serving.

Paula has attended extra trainings and become an EMT, a pump operator, pump truck driver, and qualified for a regional management team to be part of the incident command. During the Archer Mountain fire she drove a pump truck up to the staging area to refill fire trucks.

The water tender trucks hold 2,500 gallons of water. “A regular fire truck will use up its water very quickly when it’s going full bore,” Rick Knapp said.

Paula has been called out on a “mobe” (mobilization) in many parts of the state. This is a position that “keeps the front line firefighters going,” said Rick, with practical things like toilets and food.

archer mountain fire
Photo courtesy: Department of Natural Resources

In the last seven years the Knapps have trained 250 students in CERT. In Washington State a CERT qualified person receives a State Emergency Worker card and that card has a serial number, entitling the bearer to Washington State liability insurance during an incident. Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) provides 9-1-1 dispatch. This agency keeps a log of CERT volunteers so they can call in these volunteers during a mass event.

In an emergency, CERT volunteers should be alert and available. “We direct our folks to report to the local fire station,” said Rick Knapp. They might be needed to answer phones, direct other volunteers, provide water and food for the fire workers, or even check vitals of firefighters to assure they aren’t suffering from fatigue.

In calmer times CERT volunteers might man a table at a public event or offer a cooling station.

Swinhart appreciates the value of CERT training. “CERT members are kept informed and trained. Their first response is to take care of themselves and make sure their family is safe and going to their neighbors to see if they need help. And they are taught some basic first aid skills and how to assess if a building is safe.” said Swinhart.

Those wishing to explore becoming a CERT volunteer can find more information online. The classes start twice a year, the next session October 13.

“We’ve had great success with people who have taken the class,” said Rick Knapp. “They become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”

Clark County fire departments rely on volunteers and citizens groups to assist in major natural events. Citizen Emergency Response Team class volunteers get a taste of fire fighting. Photo courtesy: Paula and Rick Knapp.

People who are interested in following the fires across the country can find information on InciWeb. Information specifically on the Eagle Creek fire can be found on the Skamania County Sheriff’s website.

For the public there has been only one repercussion so far (other than the smoke). “We’ve temporarily banned outdoor recreational fires because it’s so dry and there’s bad air quality,” said Swinhart. The ban will probably last until steady rain returns to the region.

Do you know other Clark County folks that are contributing to the Columbia River Gorge fire fighting efforts that deserve some attention?  Send us an email at submit@clarkcountytalk.com.

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