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South county seeks fire protection

When Stuart Von Borstel got a call that a fire had broken out on his property and his cows, over 100 miles away from where he was, were in danger, he wished he could call the fire department to take care of it.

But he couldn’t. No fire department covers south Wasco County.

“It’s a pretty helpless feeling when you don’t have someone to call,” he said.

The incident caused Von Borstel and his neighbors to start thinking about what they could do so that there would be someone to call in the future. Their solution: Ask South Sherman Fire and Rescue to expand its district to cover south Wasco County. In return, the residents would pay property taxes to the district.

“I believe South Wasco residents have the right to have this offered to them,” Von Borstel told the Wasco County Board of Commissioners during their July 17 meeting.

He said the area that was being looked at was about 380,000 acres. If a ballot measure passed to expand the fire district property owners would be assessed $1.50 per $1000 of assessed value. Commercial or industrial properties would be assessed $2.50 per $1000 of assessed value.

Von Borstel said the higher property taxes ($90 a year for a $60,000 home) would be offset by lowered insurance rates. He said when South Sherman Fire and Rescue put fire trucks in Kent, near his residence in Sherman County, his homeowner’s insurance immediately dropped $300.

During the meeting a number of agencies voiced their support for getting an expansion of the district on the ballot, including delegates from South Sherman Fire and Rescue.

Captain Chris Hendrix said South Sherman sometimes chooses to respond to fires across the county line but then either has to bill the property owners thousands of dollars or ask their own taxpayers to foot the bill for the neighboring county’s fire.

“Right now it’s a no-man’s land. No entity is legally responsible to respond,” he said.

Hendrix said if the district was expanded to south Wasco County then the district could not only supply emergency aid but also help with fire prevention programs, fuel reduction, setting up a command station during incidents and drawing upon their mutual aid agreements with other fire crews.

Don Tschida, assistant fire manager for the Bureau of Land Management, said right now the agency only sometimes takes action on a fire that starts on private land in south Wasco County. The bureau could respond every time if the area were covered by a fire district that it had a mutual aid agreement with.

“From my understanding, this would help us in some of our decision-making and allow us to take action sooner, so the fire gets less large,” he said.

Keith Holbrook of Shaniko in Wasco County said the city recently worked out a deal for South Sherman Fire and Rescue to cover the town. He said in 1996 there was a fire that burned 1,000 acres but could have been a third of the size if it had been protected land. Holbrook said sometimes ranchers had the equipment to fight the fire but “you can’t get two ranchers to agree on the same thing” and they didn’t always communicate.

Once two men who were fighting a fire had to save themselves by laying in a creek to avoid a backfire another property owner started without telling them. That can be avoided now that South Sherman is in charge of fire-fighting efforts.

“When they offered to come to Shaniko it was a no-brainer for us,” he said.

Wasco County Planning Director John Roberts said now is a good time to talk about expanding South Sherman Fire District into Wasco County because of the planned Brush Canyon Wind Power Facility that will stretch across the two counties. He said after an application was submitted to the Energy Facility Siting Council one of the biggest concerns the council had about the proposed 88,000-acre wind farm was a lack of fire protection.

“We counted heavily on a thin fire plan,” Roberts said. “The applicant came back and said what can we do, and we discussed expanding their (South Sherman’s) fire protection district.”

Linda Brown, Wasco County clerk, told attendees that there were too many legal hurdles to clear for them to get on the November ballot as they had hoped. But county commissioners voiced support of the fire district or property owners who wanted to pay for a lawyer to help work out the legal difficulties of a district that crosses county lines.

“I think it’s a great idea. You have our full support in moving forward and seeing what you need to do to make this work,” Steve Kramer said.

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