No fire protection for no man’s land

 No fire protection for no man’s land

29 July 2016

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USA —  There are 156,000 of acres of land in Umatilla County with no official fire protection. This land is predominantly in three areas of the county — north of Pendleton, east of Hermiston and south of Pilot Rock — and is known as “no man’s land” among county fire officials.

These areas are unprotected because those land owners do not pay taxes for fire coverage. Fires that start in those areas have the potential to become large fires, like the recent fire in Gilliam County, that would threaten land and homes owned by citizens within a fire protected area. As a result, time and resources are often expended outside district boundaries to prevent small fires from getting out of control.

Where possible, district fire crews will preserve resources by allowing a fire in no man’s land to burn toward a boundary line and then take action.

Most often, land owners are the first responders to fires on their land and do their best with tractors and equipment, but according to Scott Stanton, fire chief of the Umatilla County Fire District, their efforts are just not enough.

Stanton wants to see the county, landowners and area fire chiefs sit down and find solutions to the no man’s land issue and the problems unprotected land pose. Stanton has at least three possible ways to address no man’s land.

One idea is to have current fire districts adjacent to the lands annex the unprotected area. Landowners would have to file the request and then voters would have to approve the annexation.

Another solution is to create a new fire district. The process is similar to annexation and requires a vote.

A third possibility would be to form a rangeland fire protection association through the state. In a fire protection association, landowners agree to serve as volunteer wildland firefighters in case a fire starts on their lands. There is no fire station, no paid fire crew and no tax district.

Through forming an association, landowners have access to grant funds and steeply discounted firefighting equipment from other government agencies or the military.

Marvin Vetter is the rangeland fire protection coordinator with the Oregon Department of Forestry. He assists interested parties in the process of forming a rangeland association, as well as providing training and helping associations get equipment. Vetter refers to the associations as volunteer wildland fire departments. However, the associations are not trained to tackle structure fires.

Legislation passed this spring in Oregon now allows for counties to form associations under local emergency management and provide training and equipment to the association. But Vetter said the legislation only applies to counties with 200,000 plus acres of unprotected rangeland.

In addition to the 156,000 acres in Umatilla County with no protection, an area near Milton-Freewater has 106,600 acres under voluntary contracted coverage. It is not a tax-funded department or district, but a private service people in the area have to pay for to receive coverage. It is unclear whether that area would qualify for rangeland association protection.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal’s website also suggests creating fire protection through forming a domestic water supply district, county service district or a governmental industry fire brigade.

Cliff Bracher has property located within the no man’s land area. A portion of Bracher Farms is protected by the Helix Rural Fire Protection District.

With the formation of Umatilla County Fire District 1, additional property owned by Bracher, including his family home, was incorporated into the district’s service area.

Bracher spoke with the East Oregonian on his cell phone while in the middle of wheat harvest at an area of his property that still remains unprotected. He said that the threat of fire out there is “always a concern.” He is, however, grateful for the new coverage he receives through the new fire district.

“We’ve already received services and I haven’t even paid the bill yet,” he said in reference to tax money he will have to pay on his property to be included in the newly formed district.

Bracher said the ideal would be to have fire stations every few miles throughout the area, but since the land is so rural and not many people live out there, it’s just not realistic. He would like to see a rural fire department outside of Pendleton. The problem is, he said, “Nobody wants to pay for it.”

Funding might be the biggest hurdle in getting the area protected. As it stands now, Bracher says his first call when a fire gets out of hand is to the Forest Service office in Walla Walla because it has access to resources like planes that can drop fire retardant or the ability to send ground crews.

One area in no man’s land that seems to be a hotbed for wildland fires is the Juniper Canyon area east of Hat Rock near the Washington border. A fire will start by Highway 730 and quickly build into a large blaze.

Pendleton Fire Chief Mike Ciraulo said his department responds to areas without coverage as requested.

“Our priority is fires that threaten our protection area, however we have made a conscious decision to respond as requested irrespective of threat,” Ciraulo said in an email.

No man’s land is not a new issue, according to Stanton. “This unprotected land, no man’s land, has been a problem a long time.”

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