Ocean Shores woman dies in fire; only 1 firefighter available to respond

A 70-year-old woman died in a house fire in Ocean Shores over the weekend. Because of staffing difficulties, only one firefighter could respond. (Photo: KOMO News)

OCEAN SHORES, Wash. (KOMO) -- The Ocean Shores Fire Department found itself critically short-handed during a blaze that turned deadly over the weekend.

There was only one firefighter available to go on the call.

"It just happened so fast," said neighbor Steven Monson. "All of a sudden whoosh. It just blew up like that." He is astounded by the destructive nature of the fire that consumed the small home just 15 feet from his.

The 70-year-old homeowner was later found dead inside. Monson said, "Just a very beautiful person, very nice person."

Only one firefighter was available to respond because the other four on duty were tied up taking emergency aid patients to the hospital in Aberdeen 30 minutes away.

If there had been more firefighters available, could they have saved her life?

"This was our nightmare," said Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler. She is saddened by the news and says it was just unfortunate there were two aid calls at the same time. "I don't know if there was a possibility that they could have saved the gal from dying in the fire or not. It was a pretty horrible situation."

"One firefighter is definitely not enough to handle the situation," said Lt. Corey Kuhl of the Ocean Shores Fire Department. "If we had our whole crew available at the time, I was told it would have been a different ballgame altogether. But whether or not the outcome would have changed for the victim, there's no way of saying at this point in time."

The lone fire captain at the scene was helped by two police officers, two State Patrol troopers and a sheriff's deputy.

But neighbor Monson said the fire was too intense for any possible rescue. " No it was already engulfed. It was already done."

They say it's a situation that all rural fire departments face. It is the balance of having enough crews to keep people safe and being able to afford it. In this case the timing of everything just left the the department short-handed, and the Fire Department said it could easily happen again.

And now there's concern the department could get even smaller. A federal grant allowed it to grow by seven firefighters. That grant ends next January. That means only three to four on each shift.

The city paid for a staffing level study. "The study says we should work towards having seven on duty every day and right. Now we're at a minimum of four," Kuhl said.

"I can't imagine we will go that far backwards," Dingler, the mayor, said.

The mayor said it will be up to the City Council to keep the seven fire fighters with an increase in a utility tax. In light of what just happened fire crews hope they'll keep at least what they have.