Recent Fires Underscore Rifts Between Departments

By Beacon Staff

Two rural fire chiefs in districts adjacent to the city are questioning Kalispell Chief Dan Diehl’s response to a recent fatal fire, wondering why firefighters as far away as Bigfork were called in for aid, and their departments were not.

The questions, from Smith Valley Fire Chief Doug Scarff and West Valley Fire Chief Rodney Dresbach, concern the large house fire that occurred early on the morning of Jan. 12 on Liberty Street in Kalispell. The fire took the lives of 74-year-old John Nelson and his 72-year-old wife Jacqueline “Jackie” Nelson.

Kalispell City Fire Department called for assistance from departments throughout the valley, including Evergreen, Whitefish, South Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Bigfork. Smith Valley and West Valley, whose districts abut Kalispell’s western border, did not get a call, despite the departments signing agreements last year that they would assist each other. Dresbach and Scarff say the incident underscores an ongoing pattern of Kalispell failing to call on their departments.

“The issue is that both Smith Valley and West Valley have automatic mutual aid agreements with the city,” Scarff said. “They’re not utilizing the closest available resource, even though they say they do.”

“(Diehl) has proven time and time again that he doesn’t want us around the fire scenes that are close to our boundaries,” Scarff added. “When you have a contract with somebody it should be honored, and if they’re not going to honor it, then do away with the contract.”

Diehl responded forcefully that his department has responded to all incidents quickly and with ample equipment and manpower. And when he calls for aid from departments like Whitefish or Evergreen, it is because they have stations staffed around the clock that can respond faster than some all-volunteer departments like Smith Valley and West Valley.

“We’ve had plenty of resources to be able to handle the calls that we’re responding to,” Diehl said. “I can guarantee you that the responses that we’re getting from these departments is surprisingly quick.”

Though the departments have signed mutual aid agreements, Diehl said he and the chiefs from Smith Valley and West Valley have yet to formalize those agreements by meeting to work out their “run cards,” which determine the order in which a department will call on other departments for assistance. In the meantime, Diehl believes the departments he regularly calls on for help all cooperate during incidents.

“We have developed relationships with these people and everyone trains together well and that’s important when you’re at a fire scene or emergency scene,” Diehl said. “We get along great together and that’s somewhat of a problem when you start adding people into the mix that don’t play well together.”

Diehl is critical of Scarff and Dresbach for fomenting disagreements at a time when most other fire departments in the valley are focused on figuring out ways to improve cooperation.

“It’s the same personalities on the west side that continue to cause problems for a lot of the people that we work with,” Diehl said. “I’m concerned about bringing them in and possibly destroying the relations that we have with Evergreen.”

“As the chief, I’ve got to look at how well everyone’s working together, and right now, things are working well,” Diehl added.

Regardless of how fast some departments can respond, Scarff and Dresbach argue that it still doesn’t account for calling departments as far away as Columbia Falls or Bigfork to respond to a fire on Kalispell’s west side, before calling Smith Valley and West Valley.

“We’re five miles away and you’re telling me that Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Bigfork are closest resources?” Dresbach said. “Could we have been there quicker? More than likely, yeah.”

Nor, they add, was the Liberty Street fire an isolated incident. Dresbach and Scarff point to the Nov. 3 response to a call regarding smoke coming from a breaker box at the Asian Buffet restaurant in Kalispell, on the corner of Idaho Street and Main Street. According to fire reports provided by Diehl, the city called on South Kalispell, Whitefish and Bigfork. On Dec. 31, Kalispell called on Evergreen, South Kalispell and Whitefish to respond to a smell of smoke at the Red Lion Inn. Though these were minor incidents, Dresbach and Scarff say that, coupled with the Liberty Street fire, they show a trend where their departments are bypassed.

Kalispell has long suffered from contentious relationships with surrounding rural fire districts. Much of it stems from the years of recent growth where rural chiefs complained that Kalispell’s rapid annexations depleted the tax base of surrounding fire districts. Since taking over as chief in 2008, Diehl said he has worked hard to improve relationships with surrounding districts, and has succeeded in signing mutual aid agreements with several departments historically reluctant to do so.

But clearly, tensions remain, particularly regarding West Valley and Smith Valley. Early last year, questions arose over why West Valley did not call Kalispell for assistance in fighting a Jan. 10 house fire in Stillwater Estates, close to Kalispell Fire Station 62. At the time, rural fire departments communicated on a different dispatch channel than Kalispell – a problem now remedied by the new county 911 center’s integrated dispatch.

“The travesty of the system is that we need to be calling the closest fire agencies to be able to provide services to those in need, regardless of whose district it is,” Diehl was quoted in a Jan. 12 Daily Inter Lake story as saying. “We are going to ask anybody and everybody that is able to help.”

Dresbach interprets Diehl’s comments as criticism of West Valley’s response to the fire in Stillwater Estates and said the Kalispell chief is not keeping his word regarding mutual aid.

“It’s time to call a spade a spade,” Dresbach said. “He said all this stuff and he’s doing exactly the opposite of what he said he would do.”

With the chiefs leveling such criticism at each other, it’s hard to foresee renewed relationships. But Dresbach announced last week he is leaving his post to take a fire chief and fire warden position in eastern Montana, a decision he described as a “career move.” Diehl said he immediately began receiving phone calls from other West Valley firefighters intent on improving the relationship.

“We’re already talking about changing and they want to put us on all their run cards and they want to meet with us as soon as possible to try and fix it all,” Diehl said, adding that Kalispell is also about to receive delivery on a $72,000-water tender truck, the purchase of which will be useful to rural departments, if they work together. “Now if that ain’t going out of our way to try to develop a relationship, I don’t know what is.”

For his part, Scarff hopes to somehow work out the issues of the mutual aid agreement as well, and return the focus to public safety.

“When the page goes out, wherever the call may be,” Scarff said, “we will go get the job done and we will work with whoever is there to help get the job done.”

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