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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Luckily, it was only a small fire

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: April 20, 2024, 6:09am

My office window overlooks Eighth Street west of Esther Short Park. Not an hour goes by that I don’t see a person who seems to be homeless or suffering from mental illness. Often these people will stop at a small planter near the window, which until Tuesday contained a bushy tree. I see them smoking cigarettes and drugs.

So when Associate Editor Will Campbell called me last Saturday morning to report that someone had set the building on fire, I could imagine how it happened. And, as it turns out, that’s what the investigation showed. A homeless woman, possibly mentally ill, was allegedly smoking fentanyl in the planter next to the front door when she set our landscaping on fire. The fire was hot enough to break a window, and it scorched the facade. Damage inside was limited to Publisher Ben Campbell’s office door, which firefighters had to force open to see if the fire had extended inside. It hadn’t.

Although minor, the fire caused us to take several actions.

First, Will immediately wrote and posted a short story about the fire on our website. The fire occurred less than two blocks from the Vancouver Farmers Market, and because we occupy a large commercial building, a lot of fire engines were dispatched. We wanted to let people know what the commotion was about.

Second, on Tuesday, several members of our press crew removed most of the landscaping from the front of the building, leaving only a couple of small lace-leaf Japanese maples. It won’t look as nice, unfortunately, but we need to prevent a similar fire. I am hopeful it will also reduce drug use and public urination, and possibly the number of people who choose to smoke, argue and litter in front of my office window.

This isn’t the first time The Columbian has had to cut back its landscaping, by the way. A few years ago, we removed some lovely bushes because people could hide in them. We also closed our public lobby and keep our doors locked to keep non-customers from accessing our building, which has been an occasional problem.

Dealing with disaster

Also on Tuesday, the editors held a short but interesting discussion about how we would cover a disaster at our own facility. If it occurred during work hours, we’d already be on the scene and would be able to gather and report a lot of information quickly.

If the disaster occurred after hours, like Saturday’s fire, we’d make a plan to call people into work as needed, with a top editor — ideally, Erin Middlewood, our managing editor for content — directing the coverage. If she isn’t available, several of us have coordinated complex breaking stories before and could handle it.

The pandemic taught us how to work together remotely. We don’t have to be physically in the building to report and edit stories and photos, or design news pages. We can post content on our website and social media channels remotely, too.

Production of newspapers could be a challenge. Company executives have put a lot of thought and money into this, and produced red binders with our various plans that managers are asked to keep off-site.

If our data center was affected, we have a disaster data-recovery site that is located in another state. It is backed up daily, although we would likely lose up to a day’s production.

If our metro press fails, we have a second, smaller press located in another building that we can use. Color positions and page counts would be limited.

We also have electrical generators sufficient to power our most essential equipment.

Obviously, I hope we never have to implement any of these contingency plans. But Saturday’s fire was reminder about their importance.