Legislature should pass bill to expand fire service

By the Herald editorial staff

It's about time our state leaders did something to address the danger of fires in areas outside the jurisdiction of existing fire districts and departments.

These so-called "no man's lands" often combine a lack of firefighters who can respond with a high risk for wildfires.

To make matters worse, property owners caught in this predicament are often prevented from trying to save land and structures themselves.

Two Yakima Valley legislators recently brought this longstanding issue to the forefront in response to last year's Dry Creek Complex Fire.

That lightning-sparked wildfire tore through 49,000 acres in one of the no man's land areas between Sunnyside and Hanford, destroying the landmark Silver Dollar Cafe and damaging ecologically important old-growth native shrub steppe.

Sen. Jim Honeyford heard from residents of his district who suffered losses because of the fire. Some had equipment that could have been used to quell the fire but were not allowed past barricades to try to save their property.

As often happens when fire erupts beyond any fire district's jurisdiction, some property owners left in harm's way were shocked to find out that firefighters wouldn't respond.

The firefighters are not to blame, but the rules are. And that's what these lawmakers are out to change.

All lands in Washington would be covered under House Bill 2549, with county assessors collecting an assessment from property owners not served by a firefighting agency.

Existing fire districts would be tasked with the responsibility of providing protection and would be reimbursed for any costs with the money collected by the county.

If an area didn't have an agreement with a neighboring district, firefighting would fall to the Department of Natural Resources, and the money would go to the state.

The bill would absolve firefighters of any additional liability for working outside the bounds of their districts.

This proposed change in state law is a much-needed move to give all Washington residents a modicum of fire protection.

The current system serves cities and unincorporated areas with enough people to fund a rural fire district, but it doesn't provide practical solutions for residents in the most remote, sparsely populated parts of the state.

After years without protection and some devastating structure fires, residents in central Franklin County took matters into their own hands. They voted to form their own fire protection district and fund it in 2007.

We applaud those in the new Franklin County Fire District No. 5 for working through a challenging system and finding a way to help themselves.

But other areas lack the people and money to copy that success. In some cases, the residents vote for a fire protection district -- a no-brainer -- but can't come up with the taxes to operate it. You can't have one without the other.

Those with property beyond the jurisdiction of a firefighting agency shouldn't get a free ride, but Honeyford's bill ensures all landowners pay their fair share.

This new law would make fire protection a reality for all landowners in the state and help avoid the magnitude of loss suffered in fires like Dry Creek.

Lawmakers should pass this bill.