Last year’s annexation of Battle Ground residents into Fire District 3 has provided more firefighters and equipment to protect 40,000 people and 90 square miles of central Clark County, including Hockinson, Brush Prairie and Venersborg.
Now, the fire district’s leaders are eyeing their next steps as the once rural fire district becomes more suburban in nature.
“There’s a lot of people out here,” said Rick Steele, chair of the district’s board of commissioners. “Battle Ground and the Hockinson area are becoming more urban. The more urban it gets, the more we have to staff up.”
A drive along state Highway 503 from Vancouver to the Battle Ground city limits quickly confirms the growth.
So does the fire district’s activity.
After slowing last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, call volumes are up 10 percent year over year, and are on pace to reach 5,000 this year, which would be a new record. Fire losses are also up, reaching $1.5 million in the first six months of the year, which Steele and Fire Chief Scott Sorenson attribute to the increased population and developed property the district protects.
To meet the growing needs, several changes are already in place. The fire district purchased more apparatus, including a truck with a 109-foot extension ladder, enabling it to serve the new apartment complexes being built around Battle Ground and Brush Prairie.
The fire district has also hired more firefighters and increased staffing at two fire stations. The district now employs 45 full-time firefighters, at least 10 of whom are on duty at all times.
Fire Station 32, which serves Venersborg, is now staffed around-the-clock, and two crews are always on duty in the city of Battle Ground, where simultaneous calls are becoming more common, Sorenson said.
“It has really helped our response time,” the chief said.
Steele, who spent 33 years in the fire service before he retired, noted that fire insurance rates charged to homeowners are, in part, determined by the response times and staffing of the local fire department. Better service and staffing results in lower premiums.
But improving service comes at a price. Hiring a new full-time firefighter costs District 3 $103,800 per year in salary, benefits and other direct costs, Sorensen said, and the budget doesn’t have much room for growth.
Still, the fire district’s leaders have developed a wish list, including:
- staffing more three-person crews. Currently, the minimum staffing for a fire engine is two people, but in complex situations, such as a fire involving a rescue, at least three firefighters are required. Of District 3’s five stations, only two currently staff three or more firefighters per shift.
- staffing Fire Station 34. This station, at 24812 N.E. Rawson Road, serves Elkhorn Mountain and Summer Hills, but it is only staffed by full-time firefighters when wildfire danger is extreme. At other times, the first responders from the station are volunteers, who are becoming harder to recruit and train, Sorenson said.
- replacing Fire Station 35. This station, part of the old Battle Ground city hall complex, is undersized and outdated to serve the rapidly growing city. It is the district’s busiest.
- building a new Fire Station 36. The district has already purchased property along Highway 503 at Northeast 144th Street and would like to build a station to serve a rapidly developing area that is currently a long drive from fire and emergency services.
One possibility to fund more services would be to charge an impact fee on new development, similar to those collected to build schools and roads. The fire district already collects impact fees from development within the city of Battle Ground. District 3 leaders have broached the idea with the Clark County Council, which would need to approve the fees. The councilors were sympathetic to the need for fire protection but not supportive of the fees, Sorenson said.
In concert with other Clark County fire districts, they plan to ask again.
“This isn’t just a District 3 problem,” Steele said. “It’s an issue the entire county is facing. We have no funding for future growth.”
“We’re running off the success of our predecessors,” Sorenson said. “What we’re trying to do is map out a good future for our successors.”