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No guarantee of fire response in no man’s land

Thu., Aug. 22, 2013

This home in Spokane County owned by Jim Biggs was recently damaged in a fire. (Kathy Plonka)
This home in Spokane County owned by Jim Biggs was recently damaged in a fire. (Kathy Plonka)

Homeowners on North Wilderness Lane recently had a bit of good luck among a lot of bad – firefighters from three neighboring districts showed up to fight the fire at their house.

But they didn’t have to.

The house is in one of the sections of Spokane County that firefighters call no man’s land – not within a fire district. Fire officials decide on a case-by-case basis whether they can respond to fires in no man’s land.

In the case of the July 21 fire on Wilderness Lane, the Spokane Valley Fire Department got a call about smoke in the area and headed out to investigate, said assistant fire marshal Bill Clifford.

“They realized when they responded that it was well north of our response zone but continued in to see what it was,” he said.

Valley Fire doesn’t have a water tender and can carry only 500 gallons of water on their engines. Both Spokane County Fire District 9 to the west and Newman Lake Fire and Rescue (Fire District 13) to the east sent crews and equipment to the fire.

The home that burned belongs to Barbara and Jim Biggs, who spotted the fire when they returned home from an outing. The couple have a pump to take water from a large pond and a swimming pool on their property, Barbara Biggs said.

“We came running over and doused it right away with water from the pool,” she said. “We had three different fire districts here in no time.”

Biggs said as homeowners without fire protection, they take precautions against fire. There are no trees close to the house, and they have plenty of water and hoses to use to fight a fire. Nearby residents have large ponds as well.

A neighbor on Mitchell Road had a field fire a few years ago and everyone rallied.

“All the neighbors went to help put it out,” she said.

Valley Fire usually goes into no man’s land if needed, though it doesn’t happen often, Clifford said. He considers it bad business not to go when needed.

“We’re going to go and extinguish the fire and encourage them to go into our district,” he said.

There are a few small chunks of no man’s land scattered around the county but much of it is located near the Idaho border, mostly along the eastern border of Spokane County Fire District 4. There are only a few homes in that area along Blanchard Road, said Fire Chief Randy Johnson.

“We are not obligated to respond,” Johnson said. “There is no guarantee that they’re going to receive service.”

Firefighters do respond when requested by another agency such as the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. Usually when that happens, they are responding to a car accident on Blanchard Road, Johnson said, which happens a couple of times a year.

This time of year, he would consider the risk that a house fire in no man’s land could spawn a wildfire that would spread into his district. But Johnson also has to consider whether to take resources away from the residents who pay for coverage.

“We have to balance that very carefully,” he said.

Spokane County Fire District 9 Assistant Fire Chief Kevin VonSteuben said he struggles with the same balancing act. He worries that if he removes equipment and personnel to fight a fire outside their borders he won’t have those assets available if something happens inside his jurisdiction.

“That decision is typically made on a case-by-case basis,” VonSteuben said.

The no man’s land areas receive coverage from the Department of Natural Resources for wildfires, just like other unincorporated areas that are inside fire districts. But DNR does not respond to house fires, said DNR Resource Protection Division Manager Albert Kassel.

“We can help with the structure fire but we don’t take action as some might think,” he said. “All we can do is keep the fire from spreading to the wild land environment.”

Firefighters working for DNR do not have the level of training required to fight a structure fire, Kassel said.

Some residents in no man’s land choose not to be in a fire district, but some are unaware that they’re not protected. There are a few homeowners on the southern end of Campbell Road near the east border of Spokane County Fire District 8 who always thought they were within the district boundaries. They were not, said Fire Chief Tony Nielsen.

When the residents realized their error, they petitioned District 8 to be included into the district. The annexation was finalized at the board’s most recent meeting.

Nielsen said his firefighters would likely go into no man’s land if needed.

“I would hope that we would go and sort it out later,” he said.

Biggs said that when she and her husband bought their property on Wilderness Lane, they didn’t know they weren’t in a fire district.

“We bought it through a private party, and he didn’t relay everything,” she said. “We wanted to be up in the mountains away from everything. We would have moved here anyway.”

Homeowners in no man’s land usually pay high insurance premiums – if they can get insurance at all.

“The premiums are very high,” said Farmers Insurance Agent Debbie Moore. “There are very few companies that write those.”

Insurance companies look at how far away the nearest fire station is and whether it is staffed around the clock. They also look at where the nearest fire hydrant is when setting rates.

“If it’s over 5 miles it’s one rate, it it’s under 5 miles it’s another,” Moore said.

Homeowners who do get a response from a nearby fire district could be billed for the service. But Clifford said he can only envision doing that if the homeowner deliberately set the fire.

“I don’t think we’ve ever gone to a fire that’s accidental and asked them to pay for our response,” he said.

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