Volunteer firefighter operates out of rural home in Bear Prairie

He responded in April to first structure fire since station opened in 2008

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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East County Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Dean Thornberry looks on as firefighter Frank Billington points out the coverage area of Station 96, which also serves as his house.

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Pulling up to a blue, one-story residence in rural Bear Prairie, firefighter Frank Billington is met by a Little Tikes plastic car in the yard, a basketball hoop in the driveway and a burly golden Labrador-retriever mix wagging its tail as it approaches.

Opening the door to his vehicle, Billington said: “Welcome to Station 96.”

It’s not your typical fire station. There aren’t garage bays filled with 40-foot-long red firetrucks. There isn’t a large sign and an American flag standing outside. And, Billington said, “There’s no fire pole. One of the first questions I get is, ‘Do you have a fire pole in your house?'”

Billington, a 40-year-old man with jet-black hair, is a resident firefighter with East County Fire & Rescue. He lives with his wife, Wendi, and five of their six children at the agency’s Bear Prairie Fire Station — which is really a house. The firefighters call it “Fort Billington.”

“I like being out here. There’s something unique about it,” he said.

Bear Prairie is a rural area northeast of Camas and Washougal where the average home sits on 5 acres of land. Tucked in a hilly, wooded area, the neighborhood is bordered by the Washougal River to the south and Mount Livingston to the west.

His position is a volunteer one, so when Billington isn’t at his full-time job at Clark Public Utilities, he responds to emergency calls in his neighborhood, around the fire district and even into Skamania County. Upon hearing a loud beep from his pager, Billington heads out his front door and hops into his squad vehicle — a 15-foot mini-pumper equipped with a 400-gallon water tank, 700 feet of hose and even a ladder. It is also fully stocked with medical equipment, since 80 percent of calls for firefighters are medical emergencies.

“There’s a sense of ownership and responsibility to the people around here,” Billington said.

Getting a call in the middle of getting ready to go on a date with his wife or in the middle of his kids putting on a play can be disappointing. But Billington also has another thought when he’s preparing for a call: “These are my people, and I must go.”

His vehicle can’t transport people to a hospital, Billington said, but being the first on scene of a medical call or crash is important.

“You can do a lot by yourself. … One person can make a huge difference,” he said.

Knowing that other firefighters and medical personnel are on their way, Billington recognizes that he’s “that much closer to being able to put (the patient) in the ambulance.”

And minutes matter. In early April, Billington responded to Bear Prairie’s first structure fire since the station opened in 2008.

In two minutes, Billington was on the scene. He found smoke coming from near the ceiling, next to a stovepipe in a doublewide mobile home. He quickly doused the blaze, stopping it from spreading into the attic. He saved the home and its contents.

Firefighters from the Mount Norway station, five miles down a winding road, responded to assist Billington. They arrived 10 minutes later.

“Structures like those burn rapidly, so to save one is pretty remarkable,” Billington said.

The thin walls of the buildings make them more vulnerable to quickly going up in flames.

Aside from the elbow room that the rural home gives him and his family, Billington’s situation is also unique in the sense that most resident firefighters are college-age and live in dormitory-style quarters at a standard fire station. They typically commit to the lifestyle for about a year.

Fire Chief Scott Koehler says that while the idea of a family living at a fire station was a novel one, it is also a creative way for the fire district to be fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money.

Instead of investing more than $1 million on a fire station, the agency purchased the house and land for $525,000. The Billingtons stay in the house rent-free in exchange for Frank’s emergency medical and fire response and for maintaining the property.

“It was an area that was really underserved,” Koehler said of Bear Prairie, which he guesses has about 1,000 residents. “It needed better coverage.”

And, he adds, if the fire district’s needs change, Station 96 is easy to change, too.

“When it comes times to sell, we’re really not out anything,” Koehler said.

On average, the Bear Prairie area sees between 45 and 50 emergency calls a year, Koehler said. And that doesn’t include other East County calls Billington responds to, or the 25-30 yearly calls that take Billington across the county line into Skamania County.

“We’ve got a lot more out of that station than we thought we’d get out of it,” Koehler said. “It turned out to be a real asset to the entire agency.”

To keep the one-man fire station going, Billington gives a lot of credit to his wife.

“Suddenly, there can be one less parent,” he said. “A lot of what I’m able to give to this district is because of her, too.”