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Mist-Birkenfeld RFPD History
The Early Days (1978 through 1980):
The organization of Mist-Birkenfeld Rural Fire Protection District (RFPD) began informally in 1952 but no records were kept until 1956. On September 9, l956 a special election was held for Board members for the fire district. Candidates receiving the most votes for the five Board positions were Art Bellingham, Max Oblack, Les Closner, John Howry, and Boone Johnston. The residents also voted to create the Birkenfeld-Mist RFPD. The district levied taxes for that year but, due to a lack of participation or interest, languished until 1978 when interest in the organization was renewed.
Meanwhile, Norman Mueller, (later our first Fire Chief) helped form the Mist-Birkenfeld Quick Response Unit. This non-profit organization began its work in1977 with a used ambulance and a lot of hard work. The ambulance was stored at different member’s garages, depending on who had room or who would be home to respond to a medical call or an accident. Members were CIM certified, (Crash Incident Management) and responded to calls received from Associated Oregon Logger’s Vernonia Control (Jerry Sanders) via telephone or AOL radio. The Quick-Response was one of the key organizations in resurrecting the fire district, aiding the fire district in many ways.
During the spring of 1978 Norman Mueller, working with a reorganization committee that would later become the fledgling district’s directors, began the task of re-activating the fire district. He was able to contact three of the original five Board members. These members were asked to participate in the reactivation of the district as the official Board members of record and to continue as active members or to appoint other appropriate citizens of the district as replacements if they chose to resign. They agreed to participate. It was discovered that the fire district funds collected in the year of its founding ($3,253) had lain dormant for more than two decades in the county’s treasury. Upon reactivation the funds again became available for use. The district now possessed a Board of directors and some limited funds but no fire station, no equipment and no personnel.
On July 17 of 1979 the fire protection district was officially reactivated. By that time the original Board members had resigned and a new Board existed. It consisted of Dave Crawford Sr., Art Laubach, Amos Cutright, Larry Oblack and Rex Learned. The board members elected Crawford as Chairman. Chairman Crawford appointed Norman Mueller as acting Fire Chief, giving him the responsibility and authority officially to recruit and train personnel, find and procure equipment, and to provide fire suppression services to the community.
Businesses, organizations and citizens of the community came together to secure a location for a new fire station. They pooled their resources and talents to secure a location and material for a fire station. A new building was planned at a location leased from Bob Sanders on Banzer Road. The lease was taken out for a minimum amount, $1.00 per year for 99 years.
Chief Mueller began to organize his volunteers. Terry Bair was made the Assistant Chief and was placed in charge of training. The roster varied, but at one time included twenty firefighters. The first fire engine was received in August of ’79. It was a 1942 Ford Class B pumper with a 250 gallon tank on loan from Elsie Vine-Maple RFD. After the transmission was replaced and the fire pump repaired the engine was placed in service. The engine was stored in a hanger at Fred Busch’s home because there was no fire station in existence to house the apparatus. Many stories are told of being called to a fire, racing to the hanger to pick up the fire engine, push-starting it (very difficult to start), and then off to fight the fire. There is a picture on display of the engine in front of the Birkenfeld Store where Santa Claus (Rex Learned) is also posing for the picture. Soon after that a 1000 gallon water tanker was received on permanent loan from the Oregon department of Forestry.
Volunteer firefighters cut and sold fire wood to purchase new fire boots and received used turnouts donated from Linnton Fire Department to begin their training. The State Fire Standards and Accreditation Board (FSAB), now known as the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, held official fire suppression training classes at the Mist School once a week while the station was being built. Only two of our current firefighters remember those first classes.
By the end of 1980 the new fire station was finished and able to provide warm, dry shelter to four emergency vehicles. A “new to us” 1956 American LaFrance had been purchased from Multnomah District 10 with an Oregon Department of Forestry grant and was placed in service as the first Class A engine used for fire suppression by the fire district. Hose, nozzles and other equipment were donated by other fire districts so that the volunteers could fight fire safely. The other three bays were occupied by the engine borrowed from Elsie-Vine-Maple, the tanker received from the Forestry, and the ambulance operated by the Mist-Birkenfeld Quick-Response.
Building the Foundations (1981 through 1990):
1981 found our community in a bustling industrial expansion. Chief Mueller resigned for personal reasons and was replaced by his second-in-command, Terry Bair. Recognizing the changing roles emergency service providers were expected to play, Terry refocused the volunteers through an extensive training program. Emphasis was placed on gaining certifications available through the State of Oregon. Examples of important certifications sought are Basic Firefighter, Fire-ground Leader, and Vehicle Extrication.
During this period the district was approached by Columbia County Emergency Manager John DeFrance with the offer of three Civil Defense surplus apparatus, including a large tractor-trailer able to carry 5000 gallons of water, a small van used as a light rescue, and another military 6x6 that could be used to transport almost anything. The district accepted these units gratefully and placed them in service. As noted in the last chapter, the 6x6 was used by the volunteers to transport wood for fund raising raffles.
Since fuel bills and insurance took up most of the district’s budget, equipment purchases required fund-raising activities. In addition to raffles of fire wood the volunteers put on bingo parties, spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts to get needed supplies and tools.
As many of you may remember, the fuel shortages of the 1970’s triggered a wave of exploration for oil and other forms of energy. As a result, Natural Gas was discovered in commercial quantities beneath the surrounding hills. Though restricted mainly to the Mist and Birkenfeld area, the generation of a new gas field benefitted the State of Oregon directly through the collection of taxes. Columbia County received a portion of the tax generated by gas production as well.
As commercial natural gas production developed, pipelines connecting producing wells were laid, snaking beneath the ground to collect the gas. A 12 inch pipeline was built to transport the collected gas to the Clatskanie area and from there into the gas distribution system. Plans for a more drilling and more production wells seemed an everyday occurrence. However, development comes with a number of costs. One of those costs appeared in the form of increased traffic and the increase in traffic accidents that followed. Another appeared in the form of a need to provide fire protection for the burgeoning industrial base that had appeared. The Mist-Birkenfeld RFPD was caught in a financial quandary: New industry produces increased risk of new and different emergencies. With a major increase in risk within the district there was a need for newer equipment and apparatus to provide improved protection but there was no money to purchase what was needed. There was also a need for more and better trained volunteers. A solution was required.
Art Laubach, having been elected a director, accepted the challenge. Columbia County received tax funds that were designed to lessen local impacts. Art believed that that since the gas was being produced exclusively within the bounds of the fire district the fire district was entitled to a portion of those funds as the primary affected local government agency. After untold hours on the telephone and at the state legislature, a bill was passed that set aside a portion of the tax imposed on gas produced in Columbia County. The purpose of these impaction funds was to reimburse fire districts and other emergency response organizations for their additional operational costs related to commercial Natural Gas development and production. The bill required the funds to be distributed on an annual basis. As a result, the fire district received a brand new 1983 Class A fire engine (known today as a Pumper), a new 1983 3000 gallon Tanker (known today as a Water Tender), and a new 1982 state of the art Type 3 Ambulance. Each of these units came equipped with all of the equipment needed to be safely operated. The district also received funding for new protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus to protect the firefighters responding to these new risks.
As you might imagine, it was a happy day when the apparatus arrived. All of the affected volunteers received training on its operation and the community soon received significantly improved fire suppression and emergency medical capabilities. Using the new capabilities and adding some specific training, Chief Bair requested and received an Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating of Dwelling 8 for most of the district. With the rating scale running from 1 through 10, with 1 being the best possible protection rating and 10 being considered unprotected, one might be tempted to thin that was not an important accomplishment. One measure of its significance, however, was that it resulted in a 50% reduction in fire insurance costs for those who lived within five miles of a fire station.
As new apparatus arrived it was clear there would not be room to store it all. Land in Birkenfeld was offered on which to build a new station to house the 1956 American LaFrance engine and the 5000 gallon water tender. The structure was completed and the apparatus moved to the new shelter.
By 1982, cultural change was sweeping the emergency service organizations. Gone were the days when alcohol flowed freely after training or after emergency calls. There was a renewed demand for professionalism coming from the public and from within the organizations themselves. Over the next five years 90 % of fire districts nation-wide prohibited alcohol on any property owned by them. Certifications became required for firefighters before they were allowed to perform emergency service responses. Competency tests were required before certifications were granted. These changed forever the notion that fire response was a social event. Professional actions and attitudes were required. Many chose to leave rather than change. Others thrived in the new environment.
During that period the Mist-Birkenfeld Quick Response, having recognized how similar their mission was to that of the fire district, joined with Mist-Birkenfeld RFPD. In order to maintain functional integrity the district created two operational divisions: Fire Suppression and Emergency Medical Service. While many volunteers cross-trained and became members of both divisions it was also permitted for those with no interest in cross-training to volunteer for one or the other exclusively. As with any consolidation of services there were issues to address and accommodations to make, but the new organization that emerged was stronger and better able to address the community’s emergency needs. Paul Ramsey was appointed as EMS Division Chief. By mid-1983, after all of the new equipment had arrived, the EMS division worked with eight fully trained and certified EMT’s, while trained and active firefighters had dwindled to seven.
During 1983 the fire district was asked to annex two areas adjoining our district but located in eastern Clatsop County. Since the areas were natural extensions to the district, linked by natural geographical boundaries, the board of directors proceeded with the annexation. The areas included the populated sections adjacent to Highway 202 from the county line to mile-post 33 (including Northrup Creek Road, Old 77 Vesper Road and Cahill Road), and the populated area surrounding Fishhawk Lake that is located in Clatsop County. Mist-Birkenfeld RFPD began official emergency service delivery in those areas later that year.
In 1984 Chief Bair resigned, moving out of district to a new job. Assistant Chief Randall Hansen was appointed to replace him. Administration was the new buzz word for rural fire districts. The Fire Chief was still the operational leader of the fire district, but new regulations regarding the development and establishment of budgets and new rules regarding the kinds of records that must be kept for training and for emergency responses required more and more of a Chief’s time be spent on paper-work. Because of these changes it became increasingly difficult for a Volunteer Fire Chief to train with their volunteers and take care of the mounting administrative requirements for the district and maintain a paying job and family at home. Chief Hansen reached out to Dave Crawford for help, appointing him as Deputy Chief. The role of Deputy Chief at that time was mostly training and keeping the apparatus operational.
During Chief Hansen’s watch the district began to develop rudimentary standard operating procedures. The idea that an address should be unique to a location arose, resulting in readdressing of the entire state. The fire district was very active in that process, with Chief Hansen leading the way. Our first Firefighter I academy began in 1984 and concluded with seven firefighters certified. He also introduced the notion that district leadership should be developed through training and through association with other organizations. Chief Hansen placed a priority on developing officers, sending them to conferences and specialized training at every opportunity. Much of then Deputy Chief Crawford’s preparation for leadership occurred during this time.
During late 1984 and early 1985 Chief Hansen requested the district purchase a new rescue vehicle. Funding was finally obtained through an impaction grant award. No one else could go to pick the unit up in Florida, so the district sent Deputy Chief Crawford to bring it home. It was an interesting trip, but it made it home. The unit is still in service today.
In mid-1984 Fishhawk Lake Association had approached the district, proposing a new fire station be built at Fishhawk Lake. In late 1985, after some intense negotiation, an agreement was struck. The agreement required the fire district to provide training and equipment for a new station at the lake while Fishhawk Lake was to provide a structure to shelter an engine and a minimum of eight personnel to provide primary response in the area. In 1986 training of eleven lake area personnel began in earnest. By the end of 1988 nine of these Volunteers were trained and certified firefighters. The American La France Class A Engine was moved into their new station and placed in service and the Fishhawk Lake Station became operational.
During 1986 Chief Hansen resigned as Fire Chief. Progress, especially rapid progress, takes its toll on leaders, especially on volunteer leaders. The level of activity, the demands of organizing a new department, the pressures of helping volunteers become the professionals that society is now demanding, and the strains of too much time away from home all exact a price. The phenomenon first occurred in this department when Norman Mueller, our first Fire Chief, resigned after only two years. It occurred a second time when Terry Bair resigned after serving as Fire Chief for an additional two years. With Chief Hansen’s resignation the district was faced with a third loss of a Fire Chief in a seven year period. Deputy Chief Crawford was approached to fill the gap. Having seen what the job could demand he was hesitant to accept. When he did accept it was with the comment “Just remember I have a business to run, too!”
The district continued to mature during the next three years, steadily improving its service to the community and growing more professional, building on the work that was done during its first seven years. Chief Crawford recognized early on how much he did not know about being a Fire Chief. Responding to the need to lead from a position of competence he attended every training program or class available. The district became a member of the Oregon Fire Chief’s Association in 1984 and the Special District’s Association of Oregon shortly thereafter. He also became involved with the Columbia County Fire Defense Board, learning directly from other Fire Chiefs what worked and what did not.
As 1988 came to a close, again after a two year stint as the Volunteer Fire Chief, it was very clear that time spent on fire district business was indeed affecting his business. Early in 1989 Chief Crawford submitted his resignation, giving 90 days notice to find another Fire Chief. He urged the Board of Directors to consider a paid Chief’s position due to the history of rapid turn-over for that position. He further pointed out that in every case so far the Chief also left the district immediately or shortly after their resignation. At the next Board meeting Chief Crawford was asked if he would stay as Chief until they could put together the needed funds to hire a full time Fire Chief. Again Board Chairman Art Laubach stepped forward with a plan. Within four months an agreement was finalized with Northwest Natural Gas to provide a seven year endowment to assist the district with paying a full time employee. After looking closely at the position Chief Crawford applied for it at the next Board meeting. He was hired on as Fire Chief on July 1, 1989.
Planning began in 1987 to place a substation near Big Eddy Park. This station would serve the southern reaches of the fire district and provide mutual aid service to Vernonia RFPD. During the next four years property was found to locate the station and the station finally became a reality. While politically unpopular with some there was no arguing the need for the station if that population was to be served. Today the Peterson Station is functioning very well with eight trained personnel assigned to respond from the location.
During 1990 the district bought a 1980 Dodge pickup from Oregon State Surplus. Shortly thereafter the district’s first Class A Foam System was purchased and mounted on the pickup chassis. There were a few raised eyebrows and one or two outright laughs from other Chiefs. Class A foam was a new and relatively untested technology then. However, during the first month in service the CAFS unit was used to attack a structure fire that was burning freely in the walls and extending into the attic spaces. The system was applied through a crack in the wall over a period of about 2 minutes and using less than five gallons of water. The fire was out! Only one fire district in the county is not using Class A Foam technology to fight fires today.
During the decade beginning in 1981 and extending through 1990 the Mist-Birkenfeld Rural Fire Protection District exhibited phenomenal growth in every way imaginable. Beginning with a roster of eight EMT’s and seven Firefighters, the district ended the decade with 12 EMTs and 16 firefighters. Beginning with three operational fire and EMS apparatus, it ended with 10 operational fire and EMS apparatus. The original fire district included about 105 square miles. It now had 135 square miles within its boundaries and an additional 30 square miles of ambulance service area abutting the district’s eastern edge. More important than any other form of growth was the improvement in the district’s ability to serve the community, the improved ability to provide fire suppression service and to provide emergency medical service. Additionally, the level of training for personnel improved dramatically, adding to their ability to do a very dangerous job safely.
Mist-Birkenfeld RFPD Fire Chief (1986-2013)
Personal Note: When looking back it becomes clear to me that much, if not most, of the moves forward the district has taken have been made possible by the vision, hard work and sacrifice of people who sacrificed their time and their talents without expectation of any compensation save the satisfaction of a job well done.
The history as provided above is a thumb-nail sketch of what occurred in the early years. It does not detail all of the people, organizations, public figures or, frankly, miracles that made it all come together. Nor does it indicate the thousands of hours of work that went into the process. To the extent possible those details will be included in the official history we are slowly creating. I would like to invite anyone with stories or information on these early days to share those memories with us. The best way is to write it down and sign your name. In that way your information will be preserved and we can give proper credit for its use.
Thank you for the privilege of serving.
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