USA — Local fire officials have mixed reactions to a proposed state law that would mandate firefighters try to put out blazes outside fire district boundaries and legally protect them when they do.
They doubt the legislation would have made much difference during last August’s Dry Creek Fire that led to the measures.
“It would not have affected the fire up on (State Route) 241 that day,” said Brian Vogel, chief of Yakima County Fire District 5.
If approved, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, will require nearby equipped firefighters to try to suppress wildfires in “no-man’s land,” areas that do not belong to a fire district. It also would protect them from civil liability.
The legislation, Engrossed Senate Bill 6462, passed the Senate on Monday and is now in the House of Representatives.
The bill is one of several proposed in the wake of the Dry Creek Fire, a lightning-caused blaze that burned 49,000 acres and destroyed the landmark Silver Dollar Café, a state highway bridge and several power poles in an unincorporated area 15 miles north of Sunnyside.
Property owners complained that poor communication and jurisdictional complications prevented many firefighters from containing the flames as early or efficiently as they should have.
Vogel said the legislation does not define who it applies to. For example, he said, does the bill require a single firefighter with a shovel in his car to fight a blaze just because he drives by it?
“It can really put a lone firefighter between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
He finds no comfort in the civil liability language either.
“I don’t care if it’s written down, if somebody’s going to sue you, somebody’s going to sue you,” Vogel said.
He also said fighting fires outside district boundaries is “gifting of public funds,” and unfair to the taxpayers.
But Bob Gear, who served as an incident commander during the Dry Creek Fire, said he liked the civil immunity portion of the legislation.
“The immunity helps a lot,” said Gear, who also is the Pasco fire chief.
He is unsure of the mandate though.
Gear said firefighters did try to fight the flames at Dry Creek, specifically the ones that destroyed the Silver Dollar. In a November meeting with lawmakers and residents in Sunnyside, he showed pictures of firefighters, waiting at the eatery for orders, moving propane tanks and spraying water outside.
However, they had only grass fire equipment and no high-powered nozzles and oxygen tanks required for structures.
“They did everything they could with the equipment that was parked there,” Gear said.
George Spencer, chief of the East Valley Fire Department, expressed uncertainty about Honeyford’s legislation.
“When we are absolutely required to do something, we start to get concerned,” Spencer said.
He said he does not know how it would have affected his response to the Dry Creek Fire, which was limited to making sure it didn’t encroach on his jurisdiction.
Honeyford said the bill is aimed at firefighters actually at the scene of a blaze, not those at a station miles away.
He said residents told him stories about firefighters simply watching flames destroy power poles and a bridge on State Route 241 but that they didn’t try to stop it because it was out of their jurisdiction.
“My question still comes back to what were they doing out there in the first place,” he said. “And I don’t really get an answer on that.”
Next year, Honeyford plans to introduce a bill that would allow property owners access to their land to fight fires. Rick Lounsbury, owner of the Silver Dollar, told lawmakers he had left his restaurant to help a neighbor and returned with a truck carrying 3,000 gallons of water. A firefighter told him the road was too dangerous and wouldn’t let him through.
Other wildland fire bills this year include House Bill 2667, a measure by Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, that requires firefighters to communicate on a specified radio channel when responding to a wildfire involving multiple agencies. It passed the House and is under consideration in the Senate.
Chandler and other legislators also proposed bills that would have charged property owners in no-man’s land assessments to pay for firefighting costs. Neither of them made it to a floor vote by either the House or Senate.
Chandler said those funding bills needed more work. In a year when the Legislature is grappling with a $2.8 billion shortfall, lawmakers are focused only on taxes and fees that help close the gap.
“It’s competing with a lot of other tax proposals,” he said.