Who protects “no man’s land”?

A controversy has been brewing in eastern Washington since August 20 when lightning started the Dry Creek fire which eventually burned 49,000 acres and the Silver Dollar Restaurant. The problem is that the area was not on public land and it was outside the tax-supported fire districts.

When the fire started, the neighboring fire departments were busy with their own fires and could not risk depleting their forces to fight a fire that apparently was no one’s responsibility. It was burning in a remote area of eastern Washington, north of Sunnyside and east of Yakima near the intersection of highways 24 and 241. (Map)

Some of the issues include, who pays, liability, adequate resources to fight the fire while still protecting other areas, and even the “ethics” of firefighters fighting whatever fire they see.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Yakima Herald:

Silver Dollar [restaurant] owners told the Yakima Herald-Republic in August that firefighters ate lunch in their restaurant shortly before flames consumed it.

The owners, Rick and Martha Lounsbury of Terrace Heights, declined comment for this story but said they plan to attend the upcoming meeting. They have applied for Yakima County permits to rebuild.

Others say property owners tried to fight the fire with their own water trucks but firefighters denied them access.

Benton Rural Electric Association general manager Chuck Dawsey has some of the most stern criticism. Dawsey said his agency lost 16 power poles, at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000, while firefighters watched from their trucks.

He said his own crews wanted to attack the flames but firefighters would not allow them through. The REA sometimes uses a 1-ton pickup with a water tank for protecting poles and equipment from fires.

Some of those crew members will be at the Nov. 23 meeting, Dawsey said. He added that because of the downed poles, about four homes on private wells lost power, leaving them without electricity for their pumps.

Dawsey calls it an ethical issue: If you can help somebody, you should — regardless of liability or jurisdiction, he said.

“My cause is to find a way to allow people … to do the right thing,” he said.

Brian Vogel, chief of the Lower Valley Fire District 5, said ethics are irrelevant in no man’s land.

“Unfortunately, ethics and morals don’t keep you out of court when something goes wrong,” Vogel said.

His firefighters owe their allegiance to the residents paying taxes in their district. He likens fighting somebody else’s fire to mowing a neighbor’s yard.

He also disagreed with the notion that firefighters should fight whatever fire they see. Many wildland firefighters aren’t trained in fighting structure fires, and fire is never predictable. Fighters have been killed protecting power poles, “as simple as it sounds,” he said. He said people who live in no man’s land chose the risk that comes with it.

“The farther out you get from civilization, the farther out you get from those services that civilization provides,” he said.

Thanks Dick

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.