Idaho County balks at fire protection plea

Skip Brandt

GRANGEVILLE — The Idaho County commissioners are asking why people who own property near Burgdorf — where a lightning-caused wildfire has burned since Aug. 4 — believe the county should be responsible for protecting their homes.

No structures have yet burned in the 2,292-acre Nethker Fire, which was listed as 56 percent contained as of Tuesday. It is about 30 miles northeast of McCall in the Payette National Forest.

But the commissioners earlier were contacted by people who own second or recreational homes in the area about structure protection. Commission Chairman Skip Brandt said these homeowners wanted Idaho County to pay for structure protection — or else wanted the commissioners to declare a disaster so that emergency funds could be tapped in case the fire damaged their property.

“I’m still waiting to hear back from the Forest Service,” Brandt said during the commissioners’ regular weekly meeting Tuesday.

“What was told to these property owners? There is a huge concern they were led to believe that this year it was a new decision by the county not to pay for structure protection. In reality, it was their (the Forest Service’s) process that changed, not to provide private structure protection. When were these property owners notified of this change?”

The commissioners said the county has never been responsible for providing protection for private structures threatened by wildfire.

“The county is not in the firefighting business,” Commissioner Denis Duman said. The county lacks the money, the equipment and the personnel to provide that service.

But Brandt said when the Burgdorf landowners asked the Forest Service about it, they were advised to talk to the county.

“From my perspective,” Brandt said, “they (the Forest Service) were trying to throw Idaho County under the bus.”

In an earlier prepared statement, Brandt said because fire protection is not a service the county provides, “many citizens in Idaho County who are concerned about protecting their property from the threat of fire have formed their own fire districts … (or) subscription-based fire departments to cover the costs of fire protection in their own rural or remote areas.”

“This is the issue at hand with the Nethker Fire. We have property owners who haven’t formed either type of fire district to be proactive in protecting their private property and who are now demanding that the county commission obligate tax dollars to protect their structures, either through direct contracting of fire protection services or through a cost-share agreement with the (Forest Service).”

Brandt said there also have been expectations that if the commission declares a disaster, “the state and federal government will swoop in with all the resources.”

It doesn’t work that way, Brandt said. A significant burden of proof must be met to qualify for disaster assistance, and secondary or recreational homes do not qualify under a disaster declaration.

Brandt said wildfires devastate Idaho County almost every year “courtesy of the federal government’s mismanagement of the national forest system. Because of this fact, they provided structure protections in the past. Now they don’t. They have passed the responsibility to local governments to pay for disaster that they bring to us.”

Brandt said if the commissioners called in support for the Nethker Fire, “we are obligating all county residents to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for fire protection that many of them are already paying for through organized districts in their own areas. As unfortunate as this event is for those living and recreating in the Burgdorf area, the Idaho County commissioners have been hired by the citizens to be good stewards of their tax dollars — dollars that, in my opinion, cannot be spent providing fire protection that the affected citizens themselves can contract privately for.”

In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved a 4.8 percent increase in solid waste fees throughout the county to offset the additional tonnage of garbage that has been collected by Simmons Sanitation Service of Kooskia.

Robert Simmons told the commissioners last week that the amount of garbage his company picks up has continued to increase every year and now exceeds what was contracted for two years ago with the county. The additional fees will help pay for more service in areas where garbage dumping is especially heavy.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

Recommended for you