Former fire chief Bartel honored in Ridgefield

He spent 33 years protecting residents, property

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

Did you know ?

• Clark County Fire & Rescue is recruiting volunteer firefighters who will receive free training and earn certifications in return for working at least 24 hours per month.

• These days, volunteers typically are in their 20s and looking for a career in emergency services.

• Call 360-887-4609 or visit http://www.clarkfr.org.

The Ridgefield City Council and folks in a packed community center honored Larry Bartel on Thursday night for serving as fire chief for 27 years — and another six before that in other areas of the fire service.

Among the many congratulations was one from Battalion Chief Tim Dawdy with Clark County Fire & Rescue, who read a poem he wrote for Bartel that concluded:

“In all our lives you’ll always be/ the finest man we know.”

“He’s a great guy,” Dennis Mason, chief of Clark County Fire & Rescue, said in an interview a day or two before the meeting. “He gave a lot to the entire Ridgefield and La Center area for many, many years.”

Bartel’s service in protecting local residents and their homes was a second-generation affair. He is the son of a Ridgefield farmer, Bill Bartel, who in 1962 helped start what then was called Fire District 12.

Bill Bartel, son of a family that homesteaded in Ridgefield, served as an unpaid volunteer fire chief and firefighter most of his life. Larry Bartel began helping with fires as a young teenager.

But bumpy times last year interrupted the remarkable family story that’s part of Ridgefield’s history.

Bill Bartel died July 13. It was at his father’s recognition celebration that Larry Bartel noticed something that, he believes, was wrong. He believes it led, in part, to the termination of his job as deputy chief for support services at Clark County Fire & Rescue, effective Jan. 1.

“I was glad to see several of our commissioners attend,” he said in a Dec. 30 letter to all members of CCFR. “I appreciated their support of my family and me. Concerned that the commissioners may be charging the public money to attend funerals, I checked with our accounting department. I was shocked and hurt when I saw that Commissioners (Richard) Britschgi and (Jon) Babcock had requested and received pay ($104 each per-diem to attend my dad’s funeral) for this event.”

No one, not even Bartel, is saying it was illegal to take the stipends, but Bartel feels those should be discussed in public meetings immediately before or after such an event.

Larry Bartel said he discussed the matter with Mason, then visited Britschgi and Babcock at their homes to tell them, “I thought it was wrong to honor someone like

my dad and then take money from me as a taxpayer for doing this.”

Britschgi told The Columbian that taking the stipend was legal, but “I did return it, and so did Jon, out of respect for Larry.”

“He took exception to it,” Babcock said. “I’m a retired firefighter also, and I just wish him the best. We’ve worked well together in the past, and I hope we can get over it.”

Perhaps it was the way Bartel learned his position was eliminated that made him feel slighted, so much so that he filed a whistle-blower action against CCFR. He’s seeking to be allowed to keep his deputy chief job through June.

In a November meeting, Chief Mason presented a budget that funded Bartel’s position through June, as they had discussed.

The commissioners voted against that, 3 to 2, and then authorized a budget that deleted Bartel’s position effective Jan. 1. Britschgi, Babcock and Michael Lambrecht voted to cut the job.

“I never would have, in my wildest thoughts, expected to be blind-sided in a manner that occurred at the commissioner meeting,” Bartel said in the letter. “I was hurt, humiliated and angry.” He added: “Plain and simple, you do not treat your employees in this fashion.”

But the commissioners cut Bartel’s job purely for economic reasons, according to Chief Mason, Britschgi, Babcock and Jerry Kolke, who is the board chairman.

“We’ve been losing funds,” Kolke said. “We kind of were, and are, in a hemorrhage situation.”

In 2010, Mason said, CCFR lost $988,000 due to recessionary property devaluations. They had to lay off 19 part-time paid firefighters and two support staff, Mason said.

The loss was $327,000 in 2011 and, this year, a loss of $185,000 is projected from that source, which is not the only revenue source CCFR has.

Although Mason said CCFR could afford Bartel for another six months, through June, the board voted they needed more money in reserve.

“That’s the main reason we did this; and frankly, it’s the only reason,” Britschgi said.

“This was an economic decision,” Babcock said. “No one saw this coming four years ago. There’s things we have to do now that we don’t want to do.”

As for the near future, there’s little, if any, reason to think the economy will improve much, some economists are saying.

“We’ve really had to rethink how we do business,” Mason said.

Mason said the firefighters’ union agreed to give up some raises, and to help manage firefighters’ vacations to maintain minimum staffing at its stations. That helped save about $300,000.

CCFR’s minimum staffing standard, 24/7, is two firefighters in La Center, two at Ridgefield, three at Dollars Corner, two in Battle Ground and one on a rescue unit.

A station in downtown Ridgefield and another in rural Charter Oaks are staffed only when volunteer firefighters are available.

As is the case with many fire districts in large areas, volunteer firefighters are considered vital to help protect citizens and property.

Thanks to a FEMA grant, Mason said, CCFR has been able to hire someone to coordinate 45 volunteers. Not a firefighter, the coordinator keeps track of volunteer firefighters’ equipment and various ongoing training requirements, including emergency medical certification. Each volunteer is serving at least 24 hours per month.

In the past, Mason said, volunteers were typically middle-aged residents who wanted to donate their time.

These days, he estimates that 95 percent of volunteers are in their early 20s and looking for careers in emergency services.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.