Features, Haddon

Rurally Speaking, It’s That Time of Year Again: Wildland or Structural?

By Carl J. Haddon

The 2017 wildland firefighting season seems to have arrived with a vengeance. Seems like most of the Western United States wildland is on fire with no real end in sight.

Here in the Rockies of Idaho, many rural firefighters are prepared to head out and spend countless hours on wildland fires that occur on United States Forest Service (USFS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grounds. Many of us have mutual or cooperative agreements with the aforementioned agencies to provide an initial wildland attack response for a minimum of 24 hours, with many of us providing that response for free in exchange for reciprocal help from the Feds in the event we should need it should a fire come off of Federal or State land and threaten the fire district. The interesting side note to this, is (at least here in our forest) that our department provides first-due response to anything that happens on USFS land (within the fire district) during all of the “nonfire season” months of the year when the USFS doesn’t staff firefighters.

My question is this: If you are a rural fire department or rural (taxing) fire district, where do your loyalties and, more importantly, your liabilities lie?

Say you’re a small rural department, like many of us here are. If you roll out to a wildland incident that is not imminently threatening property and lives within the district (that you are sworn to protect), what happens when another call for service within the district comes in, and you’re delayed or unavailable because you’re up to your eyeballs in a wildland assignment?

Before you beat me up, know that I have nothing against wildland firefighters, the USFS, or the BLM. My youngest son is a wildland firefighter currently on extended fire assignment in the Great Basin region of Nevada.

I’ve had many a heated argument over this subject. If I work for a rural fire department, where I have taken an oath to protect lives and property within the department’s response area or within the fire district, then my PRIMARY duty is to be available to protect and serve the tax-paying residents of my fire district, no? Cooperative agreement or mutual aid agreement with the Feds or State agencies or not, I am a structural firefighter (not a wildland firefighter) whose mission is service within the district. I do believe that there is (or should be) language written into most cooperative and mutual aid agreements that stipulates you will respond if it doesn’t cause a hardship to your department/district or leave you unable to adequately respond to calls within the district or response area. But, we’re volunteers who love to fight fire just as much as the next person does. Tones drop…we don’t think—we just roll out to do what needs done.

Let’s look at this from another angle. You are a tax-paying homeowner within a small rural fire district. For whatever reason, YOU and YOUR FAMILY are suddenly in need of your fire department. That’s when you learn that it is on the far borders of the fire district, tied up with a wildland fire response on USFS ground. Does your department abandon that response and head across the district to you? Or, is it unavailable or delayed because of a lack of available resources or personnel? Do either one of these reasons for no response to your needs make you feel any better? By God, YOU are a tax-paying resident of that fire district, and you (and your home owner’s insurance company’s attorney) deserve better service than that! 

In this day and age, the question then becomes, “Who wins in court?” When this becomes the case, as it does more and more—even in rural America—the answer to the question is that nobody but the attorneys win. The homeowner loses, and the fire department loses. The fire department not only potentially loses in court but, moreover, loses the confidence and respect of the community it is sworn to serve. That is a far greater loss than any court ruling or judgment could ever exact.

Perhaps you and your department have mechanisms in place to keep this kind of scenario from happening. Good for you. I can’t even count the number of rural fire departments I know of that don’t have that luxury.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.