The cost of fire

Fire victims argue that not all fires are created equal and taxpayers should not always be the patsy

Gary Schmidt has prepared notices he wants emergency vehicles to carry to fire sites. They are intended to ensure that property owners have access to their property to recover personal possessions and also warn rubberneckers away.

Gary Schmidt has prepared notices he wants emergency vehicles to carry to fire sites. They are intended to ensure that property owners have access to their property to recover personal possessions and also warn rubberneckers away.

Photo By David Robert

“Smoke and mirrors, if you will, no pun intended,” Gary Schmidt says with a cynical chuckle about Washoe County commissioners creating a cost-recovery policy for human-caused fires. It’s not the first time Schmidt’s played the devil’s advocate to the board of commissioners, nor will it be the last. He’s battled local government for 16 years over Nevada public records law. And fire issues are sore subjects for Schmidt.

“I’m not sure this legislation will enlighten people,” Schmidt says. “I can’t say the proposed codes would have helped prevent my fire.”

The longtime Republican activist looks like a blue-eyed, gray-haired Abe Lincoln. He’s blunt, direct and still bitter over being denied access to save his home, extensive personal property and his dog, Xion, during the Andrew Fire that was set ablaze by target shooters in August 2004. A dozen times since that fire destroyed his home and five others, he’s appeared before the board to address the issues of organizing multiple agencies to establish appropriate fire plans to follow and share with the public.

Schmidt sighs. “You have the capacity in place now to recover costs for fire suppression. They’re avoiding the real issue. They are devoid of appropriate and sufficient planning.”

He’s seeking cost recovery from the shooters deemed responsible for sparking the Andrew Fire while shooting in 45 mph winds. “We’re suing them, but the problem is they don’t have any money,” Schmidt says. He’s also suing Sheriff Dennis Balaam for not allowing him access to turn on sprinklers and extinguish embers that lit his roof on fire and the Reno Fire Department for failure to provide protection.

Fire chiefs didn’t seek cost recovery for the $1.4 million in taxes spent on suppression for the Andrew fire.

Can a cost-recovery policy assist in fire prevention? Three recent fires combined to bring fire cost recovery for human caused fires to the Washoe County Commission table. The Plateau, Pleasant Valley and Hawken fires cost $4.3 million to suppress. Residents have been vocal about holding responsible parties accountable. All three fires ignited on construction sites, with companies holding assets and insurance policies to assist in payment for cost recovery.

Under existing mechanisms, fire chiefs use their discretion to pursue fire recovery costs. The new policy allows the same discretion. Laws are already in place, making people liable for negligible acts. But, without a policy, cost recovery is a quagmire for fire chiefs, and critics say cost recovery hasn’t been successful.

The Hawken Fire, sparked by grinding equipment, is a case in point. Three agencies incurred suppression expenses: 70 percent U.S. Forest Service, 23 percent Sierra Fire Protection District (SFPD) and 7 percent city of Reno. In the absence of a policy, the definition of “negligence” shifts depending on which district or agency provides protection.

Washoe County commissioners take on dual duties as a Board of Fire Commissioners for Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District (TMFPD) and SFPD. They’re working with the Reno Fire Department to create a cost recovery policy for all agencies to follow. “If taxpayers pay for everything, there’s no incentive to be less careless,” Commissioner Jim Galloway says.

Tax payments cover baseline services, fire suppression at a residence or business. Extraordinary expenses include overtime, hazard pay and costs for aircraft fighting fires that jump beyond a taxpayer’s property line.

The TMFPD is responsible for protection services in Washoe County unincorporated areas. Cost recovery helps small populations with fewer resources pay for fire suppression. The district pays bills for aircraft, equipment and upkeep, along with contractual payments for city of Reno fire fighters.

A policy would clarify to everybody when the fire districts will use recovery authority. Establishing a sequence of events and keeping the policy flexible helps avoid challenges. Galloway promotes show cause hearings, commencing after an investigation finds a party responsible, to lessen legal costs and fees for extended litigation.

The hope is that negligence will be decided instead of remaining nebulous once attorneys finish hammering out the details. An active cost-recovery policy impacts insurance liabilities, state law, individuals and professional contractors.

Urban/rural overlap
Fire dangers increase where urban areas and wildlands meet. It’s called the urban interface. Washoe County residents have two distinctly different interface concerns: forest and desert.

“More people crowded into smaller spaces, impacting the eco-system, could be catastrophic,” SFPD Fire Chief Michael Greene says. His district protects West Washoe Valley, Galena and Verdi.

“The fire can spread with a small wind as if it were fed by gasoline,” Greene says. “It’s so dry that fires grow exponentially.” Prolonged drought has increased the scope of fires and made the fire season year-long. Defensible space and fuels management are recommended measures for prevention, creating fire barriers that reduce progression.

Realtors provide literature to buyers purchasing homes in urban interface areas. Opting to be surrounded by trees and shrubs or desert requires that buyers understand fire risks. Sellers have an obligation to sell homes with defensible space or include costs to attain it in the sale. Defensible space assessments are conducted by the Board of Realtors and are voluntary.

“I don’t know how effective we will be,” Galloway says, referring to the voluntary assessments.

Continual building exacerbates water shortages and fire dangers. A prolonged drought has done little to slow development. Water issues, like adequate water capacity, need to be addressed in relation to fire protection in urban interface areas. Policy makers have ignored such water problems since drafting Master Plan amendments

“Five years later and no strict water conservation,” Galloway says. He adamantly opposed developing 1,000 units above Somerset that would’ve been in the TMFPD service area. He says defending unsafe developments burdens taxpayers.

Prevention Spending
Nationwide, out of every tax dollar designated for fire, 95 cents is spent on suppression and five cents is spent on prevention. “If we spent 25 cents of every dollar on prevention, we could reduce our fire loss and death rate by 60 percent,” Greene says.

On this point, Chief Greene and Schmidt agree.

“If they do more prevention, the cost of fighting fire would go down substantially,” Schmidt says. He had 50-200 feet of defensible space, sprinkler systems and a plan in place to defend his property.

He’s frustrated that cost recovery merits more attention than mandatory evacuations. Hundreds of cars and several hundred sightseers impaired suppression at the Andrew fire. Fire trucks couldn’t get in. Authorities didn’t adhere to uniform protocol allowing and not allowing access. After three years, no such protocol exists.

“They should establish how they are going to handle road control and property owner access and notification,” Schmidt says. He views the base problem as establishing rules and policy for each urban interface area, desert and forest lands, for the public, fire departments and authorities to follow.

“This effort here [cost recovery] is a dog and pony show to make it appear as if they are addressing a problem,” Schmidt says.