RIDGEFIELD — As a fire engine from Clark County Fire & Rescue sat idling, stopped at a rail crossing by a slow-moving train, plumes of smoke billowed out of the windows of a burning houseboat a few hundred yards away at McCuddy's Ridgefield Marina.
"They were just watching the house burn," McCuddy's manager Steve Souza said, recalling the Feb. 1 fire, "and they couldn't do anything about it."
Souza was at the marina watching as the fire engine waited at the rail crossing for five long minutes before it could cross the tracks.
Todd Brooks, a maintenance supervisor for the marina, was in a truck directly behind the fire engine, and he could tell firefighters were anxious for the train to pass and the crossing arm to lift.
Firefighters were eventually able to make their way down to the marina to extinguish the blaze, but not before two dogs died. The houseboat's resident wasn't home at the time of the fire, which was later blamed on electrical causes.
Tim Dawdy, a battalion chief with CCF&R, can't say for sure whether an unimpeded path through the crossing would have saved the pets' lives. But he can say this: The often-blocked rail crossing is a burden for emergency responders, and others, who want to make their way to Ridgefield's waterfront.
The crossing at Mill Street is a busy one. Each day, more than 50 trains zip through town, according to BNSF Railway, which owns the track.
"Sometimes the trains park and stop at the crossing," Dawdy said. It's a fairly rare occurrence, he acknowledged, but it happens often enough to concern emergency responders.
A plan aims to put an end to the wait and, in a broader sense, reopen access to the city's waterfront at a time when rail traffic is expected to increase.
The Port of Ridgefield plans to build an overpass at Mill Street. It would start at a bluff at Pioneer Street, loop over the railroad tracks and end near the marina parking lot. The project comes with a price tag of around $12.5 million. The port has completed about 90 percent of the project's design.
The overpass project, which has received federal earmarks and a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, remains $6 million shy of being able to move forward.
Ridgefield's other busy rail crossing lies less than a quarter mile to the north, at Division Street. That crossing leads to an old industrial property the port has worked to rehabilitate, as well as the port's headquarters. An access road from the marina to the port's property would act as the connection between the overpass' landing point and the port.
The first stage of work on the project could get under way as early as this year, said Brent Grening, the port's executive director.
Closing the crossings would mean the trains wouldn't have to sound their whistles when traveling through the city anymore, a plus for nearby residents who have complained about noise.
The bypass would also help BNSF achieve its goal to build a high-speed rail corridor between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C.
Providing a safer, faster crossing is the project's top goal, Grening said, but the other priority is economic development.
With global energy companies eyeing five potential sites in Oregon and Washington to stage coal exports, traffic on the thriving rail arterial is expected to increase. No terminal is proposed in Ridgefield, but the coal would move on rail to a terminal elsewhere.
"Over time, as we grow, as we ship more stuff across the Pacific, it all comes through these tracks," Grening said.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF Railway, acknowledged the tracks are among the busiest in Washington.
They're expected to get busier, as more grain, and potentially coal, travels through the Columbia River arterial.
"We were moving a record amount of freight before the economic downturn," Melonas said. "We fully expect rail traffic to increase in the future."
But at McCuddy's Marina, residents say they're most concerned about emergency response times and noise.
James "Hymie" Breen lives in a houseboat at the south end of the marina. A retired marina manager, 65 and in poor health, he lives alone with a parrot and dog.
He's been on the receiving end of visits from emergency responders. When he suffered a near-fatal drop in oxygen levels related to his lung disease a few years back, paramedics were able to revive him.
He was lucky, Breen said, because no train blocked the paramedics' path that day.
A bigger incident at the marina, such as an unchecked fire, could be devastating, he said.
Despite being surrounded by water, the houseboats are "tinder dry," he said. If one caught on fire and was allowed to burn, others could follow.
A long wait for emergency responders is Breen's top concern.
"That would be my only scare," Breen said, "if an ambulance couldn't get here in time."