CANNON BEACH — As Clatsop County firefighters help battle the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California, the Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District narrowly passed a new policy on Monday limiting how often firefighters can be sent to fight fires in other places.
In a 3-2 vote, the fire district’s board decided that from June through October, the fire chief or other firefighters will only be able to be out on other calls 15 days out of any 30-day period, and can only be deployed within Oregon.
Reshaping the mobilization policy was born out of concern some board members had about the amount of time Fire Chief Matt Benedict spent helping fight fires around the state and California last summer — the season, some board members argue, where the fire district needs a fire chief most. Summer is typically when the fire district sees a higher emergency call volume and faces more fire danger.
The change comes after two unusually active fire seasons, prompting a record number of county firefighters to be mobilized around the state and California.
With experts predicting that longer and drier fire seasons could be the new normal for the West, some on the fire district’s board wanted to create regulations as a proactive way to balance the needs of the state while making sure the district is covered.
“My concern is just adequate staffing,” said Bob Cerelli, a board member who voted for the policy.
While in support of the policy’s objective, board member Sharon Clyde didn’t feel the rules did enough to ensure the fire chief would lead the fire district during its busiest time.
“In my opinion, you have to look at it as a worst-case scenario,” Clyde said. “This whole thing started because of how much time he was gone last year. Now, this policy has him gone half the summer potentially.”
Benedict, however, strongly disagrees with the policy, viewing it as board overreach that will make running the fire district efficiently a challenge.
“I feel the board is attempting to micromanage the fire chief position,” Benedict said.
Benedict argues there are already measures in place to ensure the region is properly covered. Before anyone gets sent outside of the area for a fire, it is protocol for a fire chief to weigh factors like weather conditions, whether there are enough volunteers in town and other special circumstances before deciding to commit resources. He also has championed conflagration calls as invaluable training opportunities for volunteers.
With an entirely volunteer fire department, it’s possible everyone could be unavailable any time of year, not just during the summer, and implementing restrictions won’t change that reality, he said.
Mutual aid agreements with other fire departments help cover any gaps in coverage.
Board member Mark Mekenas agreed with Benedict and voted against the changes.
“We hired the man to do the job. We trust this guy,” Mekenas said. “He’s only going to go if he knows things are good and taken care of.”
Garry Smith, the board president, said he sees the policy as a work in progress, and is willing to work with dissenting board members and Benedict to reach common ground.
“This elected body was elected by the taxpayers to look out for the interest of the district,” Smith said. “A business has to run with a set of rules and regulations, and they’re not always a popular set of rules and regulations.”