Fire protection is at the crossroads for a rural department east of Kooskia, which will go before the voters next month, requesting a taxing district be formed to support its services.
“If it doesn’t pass and become a taxing district, are we going to stay with subscriptions and try to stay alive, or will we shut the whole department? Because without money, we can’t run,” said Blaine Feinman, chief for Ridge Runner Fire Department, Inc. “If we can’t put fuel in trucks, pay electric bills, propane bills and pay for insurance,” he said, “there’s no way to keep the department open, so what’s the sense in trying? And people don’t understand: Without the department, they are going to be in trouble.”
In the Nov. 6 election, 429 registered voters who reside within the proposed district’s boundaries – which includes portions of the Kooskia and Clearwater precincts — will decide on whether to create a taxing district. Information letters will be going out for voters to call the Idaho County Election’s Office determine their eligibility to vote on the issue. Also listed is the proposed $37,000 proposed budget for the district that would levy $158.74 per $100,000 of taxable value, all of which is at the approval of yet-to-be appointed district commissioners were the issue to pass.
Currently, the department covers an approximate 200-square-mile area in the Tahoe Ridge area from Clear Creek to Cedar Creek, up to Lookout and down to the Clearwater River, with presently 387 homes under its protection, according to Feinman. It is run by a 12-member board elected by patrons at its annual meeting. The department has 28 volunteer firefighters, and includes its main station and four substations that house two structure engines, two water tenders and three wildland brush engines. On average, Ridge Runner handles 16 to 20 fires a year.
“Structure fires, wildland fires, car accidents, and we work with EMS [emergency medical services] up here for extrication and landing zones,” he said, as well as hazardous material response, and rope rescue. “We do all that stuff. It’s not just fires.”
Funding is at the heart of the proposed district, adequate to provide for operations, maintenance, training and equipment. Feinman explained past operations were funded through donations and fund-raisers, and a year ago in April it switched over to subscription contracts to boost its income. Even with these 48 subscriptions, along with its fund-raisers, it was still not enough to support the department and comply with state and federal standards.
“We have to have the same equipment and maintain standards the same as a large paid department,” he said. “They don’t differentiate.”
Last year, for example, the department brought in around $25,000 in income from fund-raisers, subscriptions, fighting fires as an Idaho Department of Lands contractor, and an insurance reimbursement that covered a portion of a theft of equipment and fuel that year. Department expenses that year were more than $31,000.
“Every year we are $5,000 to $6,000 in the hole,” Feinman said. Since January of this year, the department – apart from subscriptions — has received $120 in donations from its patrons. “That tells me how invested they are in their department,” he continued, and in fund-raisers he’s promoted through Facebook, he’s received more than this from donors outside the county and state. “That’s pretty sad.”
Feinman became chief a year ago in March, and since his push has been to bring the department up to full standards in equipment, testing and training. Last year, the department’s class rating dropped to an 8 due to improvements from a 10. An improved class rating translates to reduced premiums paid on residential insurance, and maintained standards ensure its viability as a recognized fire department that can be dispatched for firefighting response.
With announcement earlier this year the department was pursuing district formation, opposition immediately surfaced, including at a July 31 hearing before the Idaho County Commission, which voted to advance the question to the voters in November. Feinman has heard reasons from folks who simply don’t want to pay to those who don’t see the need for the standards the department is attempting to achieve.
“They believe the old water wagons pulled behind trucks, and gunny sacks, are still viable,” he said. “But things have changed, and they don’t understand that.” Largely this involves current building materials – plastics, polyurethane, sprayfoam insulation, for examples – that burn faster, hotter and create toxic and cancer-causing fumes. The same with car fires, compounded in also dealing with the potential for exploding airbags. Failure to train, to meet standards for safety, puts lives at risk, he said.
“We don’t bring victims to a fire; we’re supposed to be firefighters,” Feinman said.
Leading into this election, Feinman said the fire station is open for patrons to come in or call (208-874-5499) and ask questions concerning district formation. They’ve reached out through their newsletter, social media and in the Clearwater Progress newspaper in Kamiah. At this point, he said, it is up to individuals and their beliefs if they support the department or not.
“We’re backed into a corner, trying to stay alive,” he said. “We have no other avenue at this point.”