Fire Service Plays Big Part In Combating Northwest’s Floods

Fire Service Plays Big Part In Combating Northwest’s Floods

Rescue Work Performed Largely With Equipment Manned by Fire Fighters


SPRING of this year ushered in the most destructive floods to strike the northwest since 1894, bringing heavy responsibilities and long hours of extra duty to fire service personnel over a wide area. One entire fire department was literally wiped out of existence.

The actual number of casualties, like the property loss, may never be fully known. Ten deaths resulted in the 650-acre ruin of what was once Vanport, Ore., Portland war-built suburb, which was engulfed May 30 and destroyed within thirty minutes by the raging Columbia River. Its 16,000 and more population, including its entire fire department, was made homeless while buildings originally costing $26 million were wiped out.

Property damage in the forty-three Columbia drainage districts, from Troutdale, Ore., to the Pacific, a distance of 122 miles, is variously estimated as high as $100 million, with scores of dead and missing in the area. Between 60,000 and 100,000 persons were evacuated from their homes during the floods, thousands being left homeless.

The entire Columbia River basin felt the flood impact and it is reported that had it not been for the levees erected by the engineers over a period of years and the strenuous efforts of municipal, county, state and government agencies, laboring with civilian volunteers, the disaster would have been appallingly greater. Throughout the entire period of emergency, firemen of paid and volunteer departments played a major role in rescue and evacuation, and in guarding against fires in flooded residential and industrial and farming areas.

Worst Flood Since 1894

The high water, which reached a peak at Portland of 30 feet, three feet below the record height of June, 1894, was the result of a prolonged winter season and delayed spring thaws, with excessive rain, in the areas which feed the tributaries of the great Columbia, the Kootenai, Spokane, Okanogan, Yakima, Snake and Willamette Rivers, in themselves mighty streams.

Portland and its suburbs were hardest hit, just as they were in 1894 when water covered almost the entire business district and rowboats were used to enter and leave buildings. During that emergency, the fire department placed several of its horse-drawn steam fire pumps on barges in order to get them to the scenes of fires in the flood district. Fortunately, at that time there were no serious blazes.

In recent years, a sea wall had been erected along the west side of the shore line in front of the city’s congested business section to a height of 29 feet. An earthen fill containing an intercepting sewer was located behind the wall, which was capped with a four-foot parapet. During the recent flood, this wall held back the water except beyond its north end, where the flood spread to the railroad yards and the Union Station, stopping transportation and creating a serious hazard for the firefighters. Erection of emergency bag and earth dikes extending west to the high point of the wall, helped to confine the flood waters from creeping behind the wall at this point and prevented wider damage.

The immediate damage to the City of Portland itself consisted principally of overflowed streets and the flooding of basements in the lower elevations. The halting of railway and some street traffic, and the shutting off of some through thoroughfares necessitated somewhat extensive fire department adjustments to meet the resulting emergencies. Some industrial property along the Willamette, which flows north and south through a large part of the city, was inundated, necessitating plant shutdowns.

On the Columbia River edge of the city, after engulfing Vanport, the high waters covered East Vanport, worked into the Peninsula District, flooding golf courses and truck lands, to finally cover the airport, the Alderwood County Club and entire Multnomah Drainage District.

Chief Grenfell Calls for Army “Ducks”

As the magnitude of the flood becamemanifest in Portland, Fire Chief Edward Grenfell of the Bureau of Fire, called upon the Army Engineers at Fort Lewis, for five amphibious “Ducks,” or “Dukws,” to be official. These were fitted with pumps and 1,000 feet of 2 1/2 inch hose each and disposed in the critical downtown and dock areas to augment the regular department equipment. Other amphibians were employed in rescue and engineering operations throughout the flood area.

Fortunately, there were no greater alarm fires in the regions during the flood period although the department was prepared to cope with them. Departmental operations within the business districts consisted mainly of dewatering basements until private pumping equipment could be obtained, and of seeing that all possible safety precautions were taken to guard against fire.

The Fire Alarm Bureau took action to safeguard its communications’ system from the high water. As several boxes along the waterfront were threatened by the flood, they were taken out of the alarm circuits before the rising water completely submerged them. The Bureau also was compelled to rearrange fire department assignments of men and apparatus for the flood’s duration when the Morrison Bridge went out of service, so as to provide protection of certain areas. This operation was completed without hitch and no section of the City was left uncovered throughout the period of emergency.

*FIRE ENGINEERING is indebted for most of the information contained in this report to the Portland Fire Department, Chief Edward Grenfell, Battalion Chief Edw. Boatright, Captain Jack Lowe and R. E. Cunningham, Chief Operator, Fire Alarm Bureau, who also took the action photographs.

Dike Workers at Vanport Flood Dispatched from Engine 29, Portland, Ore.U. S. Army Dukw from Fort Lewis; Several Were Used to Augment Fire Companies in Flooded Areas.

Vanport Wiped Out

On May 30 the flimsily built settlement of Vanport, lying across and slightly upriver from Portland which in its heyday was the second largest city in Oregon, populated by approximately 50,000 war workers, was obliterated by raging waters which gashed through a dike. The frame, two-and-a-half story and smaller multiple dwellings either disintegrated or were carried downriver almost intact.

First accounts placed the dead and missing of the community’s 18,700 residents at 715; however, as firemen, police, Red Cross and other workers brought order out of the chaos, the toll was reduced to ten with several remaining unaccounted for.

The story of the end of Vanport, and of the labors of Portland and other firemen to save its inhabitants and to locate and identify the casualties is graphically told in a special report to FIRE ENGINEERING by members of the Portland Bureau of Fire. One of them, Captain Robert E. Cunningham Chief Operator of the Fire Alarm Bureau, not only was present when the flood engulfed Vanport, but was able to progressively photograph its destruction.

Portland Firemen to Rescue

“On Saturday, May 29th,” states Captain Cunningham, “some of our men, feeling that the increasing high water could endanger people living in the area between Portland and the Columbia River, conceived the idea of listing all Portland firemen who had small boats, outboard motors and trailers for transporting these boats. We put the call out to all stations (of the Portland Fire Department) and in a very few minutes there was a list of seventy such craft, plus more than 100 men to act in any capacity needed. This call was repeated next day, Sunday. May 30th. More boats and practically the entire fire department were made available.

“I had some personal business in Vanport on that fateful Sunday,” continues Captain Cunningham, “so, after being relieved at the Alarm office at 4:00 P.M. I drove to Vanport, arriving about 4:25 P.M.

“I talked to several people in the project and they, as well as myself, were unaware of any special danger. However, upon arriving at a location well near the western end of Cottonwood street, I saw many people hurrying out toward Denver avenue. (Denver avenue is the main thoroughfare from Kenton to Vanport and also Vancouver, Washington.)

“At this time, I learned there was water coming through the railroad fill that marked the western boundary of Vanport (where the railroad tracks were carried on a wooden trestle which some years ago had been filled in with earth to form a dike). Newspaper reports had this same place as leaking Saturday morning and as having been repaired later in the day.

“Older residents, many of them familiar with the floods along the Mississippi, were much alarmed and asked me for a ride to Portland. Younger folk, though, seemed unaware of any danger and went about their usual Sunday routine.

“Driving to the end of Cottonwood street and its junction with Meadowns street to check for myself, I saw water spilling in through what I judged to be about an eight-foot hole in the fill, and flattening out as mud and foam about 300 yards distant.

“I took a couple of pictures and proceeded to pick up a load of evacuees. As we were driving out, everyone seemed to be on the road. By the time we had reached Denver avenue, all northbound traffic, except emergency vehicles, had been stopped.”

According to the Captain’s and press accounts, the scene was reminiscent of the Johnstown catastrophe of 1889.

Captain Cunningham reports that upon returning to the alarm office the call for the proposed boat rescue pool was under way. Chief Dillaine of the Portland Fire Department issued a call for the department off-shift to report to their stations and it was not long before there were boats, trucks, rescue first aid equipment and manpower, and two-way radio communication facilities on the scene.

According to his account, the eight-foot hole in the fill had enlarged until, at about 5:15 P.M., a 300 foot section of the fill had given away, allowing the flood to come in the form of a six-foot wave which swept the 14-unit houses before it as though they were match boxes. Dozens of these prefabricated war-worker homes were smashed to bits. Furniture, clothing and other personal belongings were floating far from their original moorings. According to Captain Cunningham, had the disaster happened after dark, the casualties would have been in the thousands.

Vanport Firemen Save Apparatus

The Vanport fire department managed to remove its several pieces of fire apparatus and some equipment, but its 56 firemen lost their homes and most of their personal belongings. The department, having no municipal home, temporarily ceased to exist as a unit. Following the disaster, men and apparatus were installed at Swan Island in the Columbia River, where thousands of refugees were quartered in dormatories that form part of the former Kaiser Shipyard.

Engine Company 29 of the Portland Fire Department became the headquarters for all these rescue operations and for the dispatching of trucks, men and sandbags to all threatened dyking areas.

Vanport Flood, May 30, 1948, Showing Wreckage of Dozens of Apartments Caused by Terrific Impact of Flood.The End of the Road for Vanport City. One-Way Street Entering Vanport from Denver Avenue at Broadacres Street.

Firemen throughout the Pacific northwest are familiar with the huge J. Stevens Rescue and Disaster Unit, which is maintained in the Portland Fire Department. but dispatched on call throughout the entire northwest. The vehicle, larger than an average motor bus. is equipped with every device for handling emergencies, including two-way radio, operating room, sterilizers, first aid equipment, forcible entry and rescue equipment of every description.

The operations of this unit are contained in a detailed report of Captain Jack Lowe. Rescue Squad No. 1, P. F. D., to Battalion Chief Edw. Boatright. States Captain Lowe:

Captain Arnold Scott of Squad 1 was informed by our operator by telephone at 4:46 P.M., May 30, 1948, that the dike protecting Vanport City had broken and that the area was flooding. The Stevens Car and the Baker Car (another squad unit) both proceeded to the scene, reporting to Multnomah County Deputy Sheriffs at the south intersection of N. Denver Avenue and N. Denver Court.

At this point an operational base was established. Communication was effected with the Fire Department Operator, who relayed messages to and from State and County Agencies, the Red Cross, Salvation Army and others. An emergency medical station was established within the car, where were treated numerous persons with serious cuts and in shock or near hysteria. A first-aid station also was set up on the road directly ahead of the Stevens Car to which were taken those persons with minor injuries. All ambulance drivers responding to the incident reported to the Stevens Car, from which point all injured were evacuated to hospitals. There was no shortage of ambulances.

About ten or twelve doctors and approximately the same number of nurses reported to the Stevens Car very soon after its arrival at Vanport. The emergency medical facilities of the car were turned over to them and they operated both the emergency medical station and the first-aid station. Practically every piece of first-aid equipment on the car was utilized. It should also be said that nothing requested by the doctors or nurses was not available or obtained on short notice.

Within a few minutes, members of the Portland Fire Department Volunteer Evacuation Service began to show up with their boats and outboard motors. They were provided with axes, first-aid supplies and blankets and proceeded to rescue persons from floating roof tops and also those trapped within the upper floors of buildings.

A request was made to the Fire Alarm Operator for additional axes to use in opening roofs to search for trapped persons. Almost immediately, it seemed, Portland Fire Department cars arrived with axes and shortly thereafter Coast Guard and Forest Service trucks arrived with still more axes and rope. By this time, off-shift firemen in considerable numbers were appearing for volunteer service.

About 6:00 P.M., or shortly thereafter, an Army officer arrived with five 2 1/2-ton amphibious trucks (Dukws), each truck with four men, including a radio operator. These vehicles reported to the Stevens Car where two doctors with complete first-aid material, and four additional firemen were put aboard. They then proceeded also to search the Vanport area, maintaining communications with their commander by radio.

It was apparent that flashlights would be needed after dark, so a request was made to the Operator for them. About 200 new two-cell hand lights and several hundred batteries were delivered to the car before dark.

Generators and Radio Prove Valuable

A great many of the evacuees from Vanport were soaking wet and as the Stevens Car blankets were rapidly depleted, additional blankets were brought from the beds of Engine 21 by the Baker Car. Also, a truckload of baled blankets were procured from a nearby Housing Authority warehouse. These blankets were wrapped around wet and chilled evacuees who were taken to Red Cross headquarters in Kenton.

The Stevens Car served coffee to all evacuees and volunteer workers and was preparing to serve sandwiches when both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army appeared on the scene with ample food and hot and cold drinks for all.

When it became dark, the Stevens Car’s portable generators and floodlights were used to light the area around the car and also positions on the dike which were being used as landing points for volunteer search parties. The public address system (with which the Stevens Car is also equipped) was used continuously.

The Stevens unit continued this type of work until the following afternoon at 3:15 P.M., when Governor Hall requested that its public address system be used to carry his evacuation order to residents in the area threatened by possible breaks in the Denver Avenue and Union Avenue fills. The car then cruised twice along Columbia Blvd. from Union Avenue to 47th Avenue and down 47th Avenue to Marine Drive, broadcasting continuously by loud-speaker Governor Hall’s order to evacuate.

The unit then returned to Denver Avenue where floodlights and generators were employed to assist the forces attempting at that time to stop the leak in the Denver Avenue fill. When Denver Avenue broke at 8:15 P.M., the car picked up and moved to Union Avenue and Columbia Blvd., where a communications and first-aid center was reestablished. By this time the Multnomah County Sheriff had established permanent headquarters with radio facilities on Denver Avenue at Vanport.

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