Rural Firefighters Question Safety as Kalispell Grows

By Beacon Staff

On a map, the current northern boundaries of the city of Kalispell resemble something a child might draw on an Etch-a-sketch, and the rural fire departments surrounding the city say the haphazard borders make it increasingly difficult to provide adequate protection. Kalispell city officials, on the other hand, answer that the issue is not new, nor as dire as some rural firefighters make it out to be, and the city is well equipped to protect newly annexed areas.

“I don’t believe that it is as problematic of an issue as the rural fire departments are presenting,” Mayor Pam Kennedy said.

In parts of the city’s northern half, large uniform blocks of new land stretch out to the west, as in the square mile recently annexed for the Starling subdivision. In other places, like around the Village Greens golf community, tentacles of developed city land nearly enclose the golf course, which remains part of the county.

Within Kalispell, isolated tracts of county land like the Meadowlands and North Haven Heights subdivisions are fully surrounded by the city. Three miles north of downtown Kalispell, the yet-to-be-built Silverbrook Estates is an island of city land surrounded by the county.

Rural fire departments are responsible for fire protection and emergency response on that county land. Some rural fire district chiefs and assistant chiefs say Kalispell’s rapid growth, and the subsequent patchwork of land that has resulted, creates confusion over which territories the city and rural fire departments are responsible for, and is putting a serious dent in the tax bases of some rural districts. Rural chiefs also charge that the city relies too heavily on the mutual aid agreements that require area fire departments to help each other out, and Kalispell is expanding faster than its ability to provide adequate fire protection.

“The city is just annexing properties that we know they can’t handle and then turning around and asking the volunteer fire departments to help cover these areas,” said James Carl, chief of the South Kalispell Rural Fire District. “They know they can’t handle it, but they keep taking on more and taking on more.”

Rodney Dresbach, chief of the West Valley Rural Fire District, said the situation creates problems for emergency dispatchers unsure of which fire departments to call in certain areas: “It’s creating a nightmare for 911.”

Dresbach points to the square mile that will some day be the Starling subdivision, currently a rural piece of land with a handful of old farmhouses. There are no fire hydrants there yet, but if a fire were to occur, the Kalispell Fire Department is responsible.

“Kalispell is a hydrant dependent department,” Dresbach said. “Right now, they’re going to rely on me for it.” Because rural fire departments use trucks with water tanks, they are better equipped to fight fires where there are no hydrants. While the four rural fire districts surrounding Kalispell have entered into an extended mutual aid agreement with each other, Dresbach and others interviewed said they declined to do so with the city, because their departments would receive little in the arrangement.

“There’s no ‘mutual’ to a mutual aid agreement with the city,” Dresbach added.

Kalispell Fire Chief Randy Brodehl said the absence of fire hydrants anywhere in the city is rare, with about 99 percent of the city covered by hydrants, but he acknowledged, “There’s always concern if there is an area that does not have a water source.” In such cases, the city has multiple trucks that can carry 700 gallons each, he said, and Montana’s statewide mutual aid agreement requires neighboring fire departments to assist each other, regardless of local agreements.

“Departments around us are required to be available to us,” Brodehl said. “All of us are required to abide by that.”

Once construction begins in newly annexed areas, regulations prevent builders from doing anything beyond foundations until fire hydrants are installed. “You can’t put any wood on it until fire hydrants are working,” Brodehl said, adding that in the case of Silverbrook Estates to the north, water storage tanks with fire hose connections will remain on site until city water reaches the new development.

As the assistant fire chief for the Smith Valley District, and a former city council member, Doug Scarff sees the problem from both sides, but still criticizes the city for taking responsibility for emergency response protection in a development as far away as Silverbrook.

“I just don’t know where the city council is coming from, or the planners, by doing something like that,” Scarff said. “When you go three miles out and take a chunk of land, how can they possibly say that they can cover that with police and fire?”

Scarff thinks the city should offer its water and sewer to certain distant blocks of land, but stop short of annexation, and withhold police, fire and emergency medical protection until the core of the city has grown out closer to those distant blocks.

Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz said the city tried Scarff’s idea in 1993 when it extended sewer lines into Evergreen. Developers benefited from city water and sewer, without having to pay city taxes. The result, Jentz said, was an area of commercial sprawl and unplanned growth on U.S. Highway 2 East, which sucked economic development out of Kalispell – because in such cases those businesses no longer had any motivation to annex into the city.

“Why would anyone ever annex to Kalispell again?” Jentz said. “Why would any business come to Kalispell?”

The difficulties facing rural fire districts as Kalispell grows are “a real issue,” Jentz said, but added that several misconceptions pervade about how the city expands. Chief among those misconceptions is that the city can arbitrarily swallow up land.

“We can’t just go out and annex people, people have to request to come into the city,” Jentz said. “It doesn’t just create problems for the rural fire districts, it creates problems for us.”

The isolated pockets of county land within the city remain that way because residents there do not want to have to pay Kalispell’s city taxes. While it may cause headaches for rural firefighters, the city can’t compel those residents to annex until they become completely enclosed by city land. And even in those cases, Jentz said, the city is reluctant to meddle. “We’re not really trying to force ourselves on them,” he added.

If the Glacier Town Center project in north Kalispell is approved, Jentz said, it will connect Silverbrook to the rest of the city, and he plans to work on annexing some of the county land pockets in the spring, to clean up the city’s boundaries. Jentz also countered the notion that the city is decimating the tax bases of some rural fire districts. When a subdivision annexes into the city, it does take money away from rural departments, but then the rural department has fewer homes for which it is responsible.

“Rural fire districts do indeed lose land area,” he said. “As they lose the tax base, they lose the responsibility to provide service to that area.”

But therein lies the heart of the problem: As rural fire districts lose taxes and land, they still feel relied upon to provide services to parts of the city. The issue remains a silent byproduct of Kalispell’s growth, and one that residents often fail to consider until an unfortunate incident occurs, and they need help.

“Most residents take emergency services for granted,” Jentz said, “until there’s an emergency and then they just expect them to show up.”