Clark County Fire & Rescue launches new fireboat

Family gets ride on boat bearing name 'Mary Firstenburg'

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social services, demographics, faith

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Bruce Firstenburg, 71, broke a bottle of champagne over Clark County Fire & Rescue’s new rescue boat Friday afternoon in the Ridgefield Marina.

Written on the side of the boat in gold lettering is the name of his mother, Mary Firstenburg, who helped found the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington with her husband, businessman and philanthropist Ed W. Firstenburg. Mary died in February 2009 and Ed in August 2010.

“I know my mother would have been proud to have her name on it,” Bruce Firstenburg said. “She loved boating.”

Firefighters took Bruce and the rest of the surviving Firstenburg family for a ride on the boat. The new boat, funded by a FEMA port security grant, allows the agency to respond to emergencies along the river anywhere between Lewiston, Idaho, and Astoria, Ore., though its response area is primarily the lower Columbia River.

Also, the Paul B. and Deborah D. Speer Fund of the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington supported a new boathouse for the fireboat docked at McCuddy’s Ridgefield Marina.

Battalion Chief Tim Dawdy spearheaded the project, which was taken over last year by Capt. Ryan Berg. When the Coast Guard moved its operations from Portland to Astoria, Berg said, it left service holes in the Clark County area. The new boat can respond to boat fires, house fires along the waterfront and any major catastrophes, such as earthquakes, that could shut down the water supply. The fireboat can pump water from the river to fire engines in the event that the city’s hydrants aren’t working.

Ten firefighters at Ridgefield’s downtown Station 24 were trained to use the boat and perform water rescues. Forward-looking infrared sensors detect heat, helping firefighters spot people in the water. Previously, firefighters could rely only on their eyes for such searches. The technology also allows them to monitor the water in low-light situations. They can communicate with commercial boats that are about a mile down the river.

“It’s fun. We have a boat, but it’s nothing like this,” said Max Firstenburg, 11, great-grandchild of Mary and Ed Firstenburg. “This is a lot more fun.”

Max comes from a long lineage of boaters. Bruce said that his parents moved to Ridgefield from Seattle in 1935 after Ed was offered a couple of teaching positions, one in Ridgefield and one in Winlock. They settled on Ridgefield because of its proximity to the river, where they often spent sunny days boating and fishing.

“They probably did one of the first (water) rescues,” Bruce said. They rescued people who were stranded in the water by throwing them life jackets and seat cushions.

Berg said that as the Ridgefield waterfront is developed, the boathouse will be floated up the river to the edge of the development. Being stationed there will allow firefighters to quickly respond to emergencies without having to slowly drive the fireboat through the no-wake zone. The fire department will have its own pier, rather than share one with other boaters at McCuddy’s Ridgefield Marina.

Eventually, an overpass will allow traffic over the railway. On Feb. 1, 2013, a houseboat caught fire at the marina. The responding fire engine sat idling at the rail crossing a few hundred yards away, and firefighters watched the houseboat burn while a slow-moving train went by. Fighting marina fires from the land is difficult because the area has no hydrants, Berg said.

The Astoria Fire Department and Vancouver Fire Department also received grants for fireboats. Vancouver is getting its boat — one that’s slightly bigger than Clark County Fire & Rescue’s — later this month, said Chief Joe Molina.

CCF&R's new fireboat