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$25 Fee not paid; firefighters let home burn

Anonymous Coward
User ID: 2528
United States
10/09/2005 06:58 PM
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$25 Fee not paid; firefighters let home burn
Carl Berg failed to pay a $25 annual fee for rural fire protection and, as a result, firefighters let his house burn to the ground last month near International Falls, Minn.

Along with his daughter and a grandson, Berg escaped the fire, grabbing two rifles and a camcorder as he went.

"I lost everything [else]," he said. "Stand and watch it burn was all I could do. ... They should have put the thing out, but they didn´t."

Some area residents are expressing outrage about a system that can let that happen -- and about a dispute involving the International Falls Fire Department, Koochiching County and the Rural Fire Protection Association, which collects annual fees and pays the city for each fire it fights outside city limits.

"You either buy it or you don´t have it," said Don Billig, the association´s secretary.
International Falls, Minn.

"You buy the fire protection up here, and you have it," Billig said.

However, Fire Chief Jerry Jensen said, "It´s not the way we´re trained. It´s just wrong. ... My job is to put out fires, not to watch them burn, [and] I don´t want this to happen again."

But it has happened before, and it might again because for two years the city, county and the fire association have been unable to agree on costs of replacing the voluntary fee with a property tax levy that would fund fire protection for everyone.

The Fire Department poured enough water on Berg´s structure -- a mobile home and enclosed porch -- to put the fire out temporarily and make sure everyone was safe.

But when firefighters were called back later, they let the rekindled blaze destroy the building´s remains.

Now, in the wake of the Sept. 15 fire, the city says it will cancel all rural fire protection next April unless an agreement is reached.

Disputes happen

Minnesota has a long history of prickly negotiations between town fire departments and rural areas.

Some departments have stood by as flames consumed houses outside their territories while others have fought the fires anyway.

Of about 1,700 rural property owners around International Falls, 300 didn´t pay the fee this year.

They include Berg, 50, who said he is unemployed, has a "goofed-up" back, can hardly walk since a car accident a couple of years ago, lives largely on food stamps and couldn´t afford fire insurance or the $25 fee.

Jensen said that when firefighters arrived, the house was engulfed in flames and was a total loss anyway; Berg doesn´t agree.

Firefighters saw that there was no fire number at the house, which would indicate the fee had been paid, so they concentrated on making sure the blaze didn´t spread to neighboring property.

They hosed down Berg´s garage.

"I´m very unhappy the way we have to make a decision at the scene," said Jensen, adding that even protecting the garage was a violation of association and county rules.

Berg said he is living in a camper and hoping to get some help for a new mobile home through a fundraiser Saturday.

A retired suburban Chicago fire chief, Billig said, "I could not respond to a fire and not put it out. I´ll put the fire out and then worry about the money situation."

But he also said his board may not pay the city´s bill of $1,503.34 for the Berg fire.

To convert to a rural tax levy, the city asked for $232,000 a year, based on a statewide formula. The association´s annual budget is about $46,000.

The higher figure is more than $100 per house in rural areas and, Jensen said, it would reduce the $165 average per house that city dwellers pay for a department that is part paid and part volunteer.

Billig called the $232,000 exorbitant. Koochiching County Coordinator Teresa Jaska said the figure represents more than what other fire districts in the county pay, and "you´re going to blow some people out of the water with such a jump."

Minnesota has more than 800 fire departments, and the state Department of Natural Resources has helped organize or reorganize 50 to 60 of them in the past 30 years with small grants and surplus federal trucks, said Ron Stoffel, DNR wildfire suppression supervisor in Grand Rapids.

Meanwhile, Jensen said, his department is getting beat up over the fire.

"This haggling over who pays what should have been resolved long ago," he was told in a letter from a citizen. "We cannot stand by and watch a family residence burn to the ground, whether it´s a mobile home or a mansion."
Anonymous Coward
User ID: 29782
United States
10/09/2005 07:08 PM
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Re: $25 Fee not paid; firefighters let home burn
"stand by and watch a family residence burn to the ground"

The community will pay in extra social services to this family. Shame.
Anonymous Coward
User ID: 28118
United States
10/09/2005 07:11 PM
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Re: $25 Fee not paid; firefighters let home burn

No link you stink


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