KOOSKIA August’s wildfire events brought one issue to crystal clarity:
“From the firestorm, it was evident there’s a real need for people to step up and protect themselves,” said Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt.
And the county commission is facilitating that self-help through a public information and action meeting next Wednesday, Oct. 7, 6-8 p.m., Kooskia Fire Station. The meeting will begin with an approximate 15-minute presentation and question and answer session, followed by informal time for participants to meet with officials.
On hand will be Idaho County Clerk Kathy Ackerman and Idaho County Assessor James Zehner to explain the process involved in forming a tax-based fire district; and Idaho County Disaster Management coordinator Jerry Zumalt will talk on volunteer opportunities for existing departments. Representatives from the region’s fire departments and districts, as well as the Idaho and Lewis county commissions have also been invited to participate.
“We’re not trying to take anything over,” Brandt clarified. “We seem to be in the position to get all the questions,” and so the county is facilitating the meeting to bring together both departments and individuals to either “join up or form up” to improve rural firefighting efforts.
“Anyone who has thought about joining a fire department is invited to stop in and find out what their department is and join up,” he said, “or if there isn’t a department, or if they have some vision of how firefighting should be in their neighborhood to form a department.”
The catalyst for this came from a 2015 wildfire season through North Central Idaho that torched hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed property and homes. Not just the general public but as well the region’s rural fire departments and districts came out of these events with questions on how firefighting was conducted and the areas short-served with volunteers.
Preceding this meeting, the Idaho County Commission met at its Sept. 22 meeting with representatives of around nine regional fire departments and the Forest Service and BLM. Its focus was on fighting future wildfire incidents and in doing so how relationships and coordination between agencies could be improved, and just what those improvements entailed. According to Brandt, two main issues stood out: membership and training.
“When the average age is over 50 and 60, and gets up in the 70s, it’s difficult to respond to fires,” Brandt said. And this includes for volunteer ambulance services where people were both firefighter and EMT hats, and “when a call comes in they have to decide what jacket to put on.”
Issues with the volunteer pool can put a crimp in firefighting response as individuals work day jobs and are scattered through their respective jurisdictions. Some areas are served due to being adjacent to existing department coverage areas, such as the City of Kooskia Volunteer Fire Department, explained Brandt, that provides some firefighting at no cost to some areas outside of town.
Some are underserved, such as the Kidder Ridge area, and also the Selway corridor, “that has been on fire for two years now each summer,” he said. “By the time we get there, 25 miles up the road, there’s not a lot we can do.”
Apart from city fire departments, within Idaho County there are four tax-supported fire districts and 10 individual fire departments supported via donations, according to Brandt. He explained with the donation departments, “since there’s no one kicking in, there’s no commitment to show up.” Residents within the boundaries of these volunteer departments assume firefighters will respond to their incident. “I haven’t heard of anyone not showing up,” he said, but a response with these entities is not necessarily going to happen, especially if the region is involved in firestorm such as the Aug. 14 blowup at Kamiah, which drew the resources of departments throughout the region.
Training is another issue. For firefighters to be brought in on state and federal wildfire incidents they need to be certified for an Incident Qualification Card (commonly known as a “red card.”), which takes both time and money to complete. Frustrating for some departments, mentioned at the Sept. 22 meeting, was investing in red card training for its firefighters who then leave for paying jobs elsewhere; or departments being pulled off wildfires – and losing that income – when paid firefighters arrive on scene.
Also, frustrating for some members of the public has been in not being able to volunteer alongside firefighters on an incident. “In their minds they are there to volunteer,” Brandt said, but without the training that certified firefighters have undergone there’s potential for injury and having crews tend to them and not the fire.
“Very few departments are sitting fat with members,” Brandt said. Next Wednesday’s meeting is an opportunity for people to realize their responsibility in fire protection and to match up individuals with departments where they can serve, or in forming districts to cover underserved areas.
Those who can’t attend the meeting can contact Zumalt, 983-3074, who can connect them to the appropriate contact.