White Pine County may establish its own new fire district (Ely Times): NDF responds

The Nevada Division of Forestry clarified today information that appeared in the December 20, 2007, Ely Times story “White Pine County may establish its own new fire district.” NDF comments are in bold.

White Pine County may establish its own new fire district (Ely Times)
By JOHN PLESTINA
Ely Times Reporter

The White Pine County Commission is looking at options to form a county fire district that would not be under the auspices of the state.

At least two issues that surfaced this year put the current fire district that is managed by the Nevada Division of Forestry under local scrutiny.

[CORRECTION: The White Pine County NRS 473 Fire District is managed jointly by the White Pine County Board of Fire Commissioners and the Nevada Division of Forestry. White Pine County provides operational funding annually including equipment repair. NDF brings statewide communications, the emergency suppression account, command and control, hand crews and other services at no cost to the Fire District and White Pine County.]

Those issues include slow repairs to trucks and equipment by state NDF mechanics and the state firing of a well-respected battalion chief.

[CLARIFICATION: Vehicle repairs are in part dependent upon funding levels provided by White Pine County. The Division does fund repairs on state equipment.]

The county is likely to seek a proposal from Mary Walker & Associates of Minden to do an analysis for a new fire district. Walker has done in several similar analyses in rural Nevada counties. On Jan. 9, the commission will consider entering into a contract with Walker.

A new fire district would transfer the control of the district to local officials.

[COMMENT: In order to accomplish this, White Pine County will have to dissolve the existing NRS 473 Fire District in accordance with the statute(s) and then form another Fire District of its choice with no reduction in service levels.]

The county would no longer pay the NDF for services. Instead, the money would go to individual departments to help with repairs. The existing fire departments would remain intact, each with its own chief. Those department are Baker, Ely, Lackawanna, Lund, McGill and Ruth.

Nevada statutes permit counties to form locally controlled fire districts that are not governed by the state.

[CORRECTION: By design, NRS 473 Fire Districts are not governed by the state. Full responsibility for the White Pine County Fire District resides with the White Pine County Board of Fire Commissioners.]

If White Pine County opts for that option, the county would have to pick up the costs of repairs to equipment.

[CORRECTION: White Pine County is responsible for costs to equipment now. Should White Pine County proceed to take sole responsibility, the County will have to then maintain and pay for equipment that is now paid for and maintained by both NDF and the County.]

“The money they’re now paying out to the state could be given to the fire departments,” County Clerk Donna Bath said.

[COMMENT: To prevent a reduction in service, White Pine County would be required to demonstrate that they can maintain the existing level of wildland fire suppression capacity.]

A possible downside is that 97 percent of White Pine County’s approximately 10,000 acres is federal land. Bath said there is concern that if a fire starts on private property and spreads to federal Bureau of Land Management land, BLM could charge the county or the private land owner for fire fighting services. She said that Lincoln County has a locally controlled fire district and an agreement with BLM. Calls seeking information from Lincoln County were not returned.

[COMMENT: Federal land management agencies by law are not allowed to pay for the costs of wildfire suppression on private lands.]

“White Pine County is looking to get away from the NDF,” Ely Fire Chief Ross Riviera told the Ely City Council on Dec. 13.

Later he said, “I think it (the proposal) opened up the eyes of the (county) commission and the people. Nobody pays attention to the volunteers.”

The Ely department has four paid professional firefighters, including Riviera. The remainder of the department is comprised of volunteers. The other departments in the county are volunteer.

“Our fire department will always support the outlying communities like we have in the past,” Riviera said.

An emotional issue with chiefs and volunteer firefighters countywide is the firing of Battalion Chief David Hendrix by the NDF in August.

[COMMENT: For well established reasons, the Nevada Division of Forestry is required to keep personnel matters confidential.]

“We had a battalion chief everybody liked, so when they fired him, the fire chiefs got furious,” Bath said.

Of Hendrix service as battalion chief, Riviera said, “I had good communication with him. He was good to work with.” An attempt to reach Hendrix for comment was unsuccessful.

The county was kept in the dark about the reason Hendrix was terminated.

[CORRECTION: A face-to-face meeting regarding the status of this position was held with White Pine County Commission Chair Brent Eldridge and two NDF representatives on August 3, 2007.]

The NDF called it a personnel matter.

During the county commission meeting on Dec. 12, Commissioner Brent Eldridge told Tom Turk, the NDF’s Northern Division forester, “We want to be included in personnel and equipment matters.”

[COMMENT: Again, the Nevada Division of Forestry is required to keep personnel matters confidential. NDF is committed, however, to strive to better communicate with the Fire District regarding equipment matters.

In addition, NDF is drafting an agreement that will better clarify the relationship between NDF and County. This agreement will also transfer liability from NDF to the County for six months until the County makes a decision about what it wants to do to maintain fire suppression services.

Finally, NDF’s primary concerns, regardless of which entities provide services, are to maintain public safety and to maintain levels of service that are critical to White Pine County.]

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