No Man’s Land Playing With Fire Homeowners Who Build Outside Fire Districts Can Be At Mercy Of Blazes, Insurance Companies
When Steve and Faymarie Housholder bought their retirement lot 1 miles from a fire station, they assumed their home, once built, would be protected by firefighters.
It may not be.
The 10 acres off Charles Road near Nine Mile Falls are outside three nearby fire districts. Unless the Housholders can join one of the districts, the couple’s planned home won’t be protected.
“We wanted to see what insurance would run and how to get it,” said Steve Housholder, 44, an Air Force retiree. “He called me the next day and said he would not insure us because we were not inside the fire district.”
Nobody knows how many people in Eastern Washington live outside fire districts.
The estimate in Spokane County is between 500 and 1,500, most of them near the Idaho border around Mount Spokane and on the Stevens County line northwest of Riverside State Park.
Three million acres in Eastern Washington are unprotected, and fire chiefs say that as people move from urban areas, the number living outside fire districts will grow.
The issue came to the fore New Year’s weekend when a $300,000 home near Seven Mile along the Spokane River burned to the ground. It was not in a fire district.
Firefighters from the city of Spokane went as far as city boundaries. But they couldn’t cross into the area outside Seven Mile known as “no man’s land.”
The owner of the home, Jeff Blackwell, was not there at the time and neighbors called 911, the city of Spokane and Fire District 9 for help.
Blackwell’s neighbor, John McClennan, and others now are planning to petition one of the fire districts for service - and to be charged property taxes for coverage.
McClennan, a 34-year-old construction worker, said there never has been a vote to enter a fire district, yet he knows volunteers from Fire District 9 who had told him they would respond to fires there.
“If we’d known there wouldn’t be a response, we would have gotten in,” said McClennan, who lives across the street from Blackwell.
Most fire chiefs say that unless a life is endangered, they have no authority to use taxpayer-financed equipment outside district boundaries, except as part of a mutual-aid agreement.
The chiefs also say that with hundreds of square miles to cover and with stations staffed by volunteers, they have a hard time responding to multiple calls.
Liability is high for venturing outside a district, especially if another fire breaks out in the district and firefighters can’t respond.
“There’s nothing worse than going to the edge of your fire district and watching someone’s house burn down - I’ve done that twice,” said Rick Naff, a chief of the Stevens County district based in Colville, Wash.
“It sounds coldhearted,” said Karl Bold, chief of Fire District 1 in the Spokane Valley. “But if we’re going to go in and protect them for no tax dollars, why should they even annex into the district?”
In Spokane County, unprotected areas are heavy in timber and many of the homeowners pay the state Department of Natural Resources a fire-protection assessment. The fee was imposed for the first time last year to offset agency budget cuts. But it does not mean the state will battle house or structure fires.
“We aren’t trained or equipped to do that,” said Bill Boyes, a manager in Colville.
Still, the state fee and fire district responses to car accidents have left some homeowners believing they are protected, said McClennan.
“We had a grass fire on this hill this summer, and DNR, the city and District 9 all responded,” he said.
Some homeowners know they aren’t pro tected and accept the risks.
One of those is Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris, who owns five acres near the Stevens County line. He bought the house 13 years ago when insurance companies still wrote policies for unprotected homes.
Since the nearest first station is seven miles away, Harris said he’s on his own and has arranged with neighbors for fire protection.
The same is true for many homes on roads so narrow that firetrucks cannot get through. Six children died in 1990 in a trailer fire along Onion Creek in Stevens County. The area was unprotected, but the trailer burned so quickly and was so remote that it wouldn’t have made a difference if the area had been protected, said David Jones, fire marshal for the county.
Many insurance companies won’t write poli cies on buildings more than five miles from a responding fire station. Instead, agents go to underwriters who shop nationwide for fire coverage but charge hefty fees - perhaps two or three times normal rates, said Kathy Clark, an underwriter for Cochrane & Co.
That’s why fire chiefs have such a hard time understanding why people who can join districts do not.
“They can probably save more in insurance premiums than they’ll pay us in property taxes,” said Fire District 9 Chief Bob Anderson, whose district serves Linwood, Fairwood and north Spokane County.
Although such annexations rarely are refused, it’s up to residents to petition to join.
Anderson said there was an effort after the 1987 Hangman Hills fire to inform people outside fire districts that they weren’t protected. One of the neighborhoods canvassed was the site of the New Year’s weekend fire.
“Myself and (Deputy Chief) Jim Graue both made personal contact with folks in that area and provided them with information on how to be included in the process. We never heard anything else until 3 in the morning when a house is burning down.”
Housholder spent a week on the telephone getting information about how to join a fire district and now must circulate petitions to his future neighbors.
“There’s no guarantee we will get annexed,” he said. “If everyone votes against it, we will not get fire coverage.”
Development in unprotected areas will be more difficult under the state’s Growth Management Act as the county prohibits subdivisions outside fire districts.
But that doesn’t stop people from building on existing lots.
One step is being taken by Stevens County. Starting this spring, anyone who applies for a building permit on unprotected land will be given a notice by the county. Included will be a pamphlet on how to protect against fire.
Housholder said fire-protection status also should be disclosed in real estate documents when someone is buying a piece of property. That would have made a difference when he and his wife were looking for land.
“I think we may have looked a little bit harder someplace else,” he said. “Just a half a mile down the road, there is land in a fire district.”