Treading lightly on “no man’s land”

Treading lightly on “no man’s land”
The state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee is working on a fire protection strategic plan expected to be published in June. It will include recommendations on how to address “no man’s land” in Washington state. Photo: Department of Natural Resources.

The state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee isn’t wasting any time thinking of ways to combat wildfires in areas outside of any jurisdiction, also known as “no man’s land.” Although new legislation assigning that role to the committee via HB 2561 was just signed by Governor Jay Inslee and doesn’t take effect until June, by then the 15-member body plans to have recommendations regarding these outlying territories for inclusion in the Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan.

Although the issue may seem less important to Washingtonians who live within the jurisdictions of the state’s 417 fire departments and fire stations, wildfires that break out in these outlying  lands spread onto property managed by state agencies. By then, the fire may be much larger than otherwise had an initial attack occurred, and this can cost taxpayers more to fight them. In an era of megafires where a combination of poor forest health, hot weather and strong winds can turn a small fire into an inferno if left unchecked, jurisdictions may be forced to act preemptively.

However, that still leaves the question as to who is ultimately responsible for those lands, and who pays for the fighting costs.

Wildfire Policy Advisor Loren Torgerson at the state Department of Natural Resources told Lens that the committee aims to have the fire strategic plan provide some direction on that. “We’re taking an all-hands, all-lands approach when we look at that particular issue, and through engagement with communities, fire responders and community protections organizations we will start developing some high level strategies.”

The state agency has two separate divisions: wildfire and land management. The wildfire division protects DNR-managed forest, but not other lands. However, Torgerson said “We would certainly take action to suppress a fire…threatening lands that we protect” even if the land is outside of its fire jurisdiction. “We have the ability to do that, and we have done that routinely. There may be areas that don’t meet the definition of forestland, but a fire starts that poses a threat.”

The uncertainty occurs when a fire “significantly far away from our protection responsibilities…really isn’t a threat to us, but it may be a threat to others,” he added.

The solution may seem straightforward – to have the nearest fire district respond. But for many jurisdictions it puts them at legal risk.

Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Dave LaFave is a member of the advisory committee. He told Lens that it’s not just wildfires where this becomes an issue but also medical emergencies.

He says his district can’t respond to incidents outside of its jurisdiction, whether it be wildfires or medical, when those resources may be needed by people who actually pay for those services.

“What’s unfortunate is that there’s opportunity to solve those problems, but it ends up being…either a lack of information, a misunderstanding or personality conflicts that prevent it from being resolved,” he said. “The ability to fix it exists.”

One solution LaFave proposes is annexation; a heavy industrial area along the Columbia River worth an estimated $3 billion was formerly in “no man’s land,” until it signed a contract with LaFave’s district. “If we didn’t have a contract to provide service to them then we have no obligation to serve them, and they have no protection.”

Another approach is ensuring that people who live in “no man’s land” are indeed aware of that fact, he said. “People think because they pay county taxes that they’re already paying for fire district. They’re totally separate. It’s typical for people to misunderstand.”

However, one way or another, people who rely on fire protection services need to be willing to pay for it, he added. “If we don’t have any funding, we’ve got no fire stations and we’ve got no firefighters, so there has to be an investment in the infrastructure. If they want to live off the grid, great, more power to them. But don’t expect something when the situation changes for you.”

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