Landowners vow to get behind effort to fund rural fire protection

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Jamie Crisafulli photo

West Glendive firefighters listen in the back of the room during a question-andanswer period at the open house hosted at the West Glendive Fire Department last week. WGFD Board President Randy Frank and Chief Richie Crisafulli took questions from those attending.

“All the scenarios make us the bad guys,” said West Glendive Fire Department board president Randy Frank at a public open house Thursday. The fire department held the open house in part to provide a public question-and-answer session to address the funding situation facing the county’s rural fire service.

One such scenario Frank no doubt had in mind was suggested by former department member Bob Eggebrecht.

“All it takes is losing one house and you’d get a lot of signatures,” he said.

The stark imagery stems from the failed attempt earlier this year to establish a rural fire district in Dawson County outside of the City of Glendive and the West Glendive Fire District.

The Dawson County Commission has said the county lacks the funds to continue providing rural fire protection as it has in the past. It has also said state law only allows firefighters to battle wildland fires under the current system.

Frank told the small crowd Thursday his department had entered into a five-year contract to provide rural fire protection at a cost to the county of $55,000 per year. That contract ends on June 30, 2019.

Currently, a 1.25 mill tax raises about $29,000 per year, but those funds are the ones intended under the law only for wildland fires. This means the county is paying WGFD $26,000 per year more than it is bringing in. Something the county says it can no longer afford to do.

“Our job (the WGFD board) is to get them trained, keep them safe and get them home,” Frank said. “We can’t do that on $29,000 per year.”

He added county fires are more resource intensive than West Glendive fires.

“West Glendive, they might be out five hours,” he said. “In a county fire they might be out for days.”

Among the suggestions for raising funds were applying for aid from the state and other grant money and charging vehicle owners for responding to automobile accidents.

West Glendive Fire Chief Richie Crisafulli acknowledged the $5,000 the department typically receives annually from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“They have $300,000 per year and last year they had $900,000 in requests. There isn’t a lot of money out there,” Crisafulli said, adding that volunteer firefighters Shawna Sargent and Caleb Kadrmas have been particularly good at writing other grants.

Frank and Crisafulli described the idea of spending additional volunteer time either chasing grants or billing for services as impractical, and unreliable.

“We need a solid, guaranteed amount of money for the budget rather than hoping and guessing,” Frank said.

“It isn’t up to your department to raise that money,” Adam Gartner said. “It is up to the commissioners. They are responsible for the health and welfare of the county. It has got to be the commissioners who take hold of it and figure it out.”

Many in attendance wanted to know how they might help.

“Can we get the names and numbers of the people who are in charge of this?” Matt Litwiller asked.

“What can we do as rural homeowners to start the petition over?” Penny Zimmerman said.

When Zimmerman suggested putting together a committee of volunteers to help drive the process, Tana Canen replied she already had a list of names.

Joe Sharbono assured the department the citizens of the county would help.

“What is someone’s life worth? Apparently it is $26,000,” he said. “I’m a little appalled that you guys are having to go through this. It is the commission’s responsibility to take care of this and I’ll take that all the way to the bank.

“It is clear to everyone you have our backs. Now it is our turn to have yours,” he said as the meeting wrapped up. “Let us take this burden off your shoulders.”

As for the suggestion the department might let a house burn down to focus minds, Frank said other departments in the state have done just that, but it isn’t an option here.

“It isn’t who we are as a community and it’s not who we are as a department,” he said. “These people (the firefighters) don’t deserve what they are going to get if that happens.”

However Frank made clear he was referring to an attempt to fight a grass fire while watching a house burn. If the issue isn’t resolved, he said, the West Glendive Fire Department will return to its responsibilities in West Glendive and won’t respond to county fires at all.

Reach Chad Knudson at rrpub@rangerreview.com.

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