Bigfork Voters Approve Fire Levy

Levy will allow for more paid staffing, as well as planned equipment upgrades

By Molly Priddy
Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon Captain Katie Edwards remains frozen as cars passing the Bigfork Fire Department honk in recognition of September 11, 2001. Starting at 6:46 a.m., the time in Montana when the first plane collided with the World Trade Center in New York, firefighters took turns standing in stoic remembrance, rotating each hour. “It’s really an emotional thing,” said Chief Chuck Harris. “People stopping, giving hugs, honking horns, giving thumbs up and saying thanks.”

Voters in the Bigfork Fire District heartily approved a mill levy sought to sustain fire and emergency services at the Bigfork Fire Department.

The levy asked for 15 mills or about $350,000 annually, passed by a vote of 771 in favor and 374 opposed. In total, the county sent out 3,557 ballots within the district. The levy translates to an additional $40 in taxes annually on a house worth $200,000.

Fire Chief Mark Thiry said that without the levy, the department would have likely run out of funding within a few years, but with the levy, the department will now be able to expand its capabilities to match its call volume. The money will also allow the department to plan for equipment and infrastructure upgrades.

The department’s call volume has increased by 200 percent in the last 10 years. There were 922 calls for service in 2017, ranking Bigfork’s ambulance as the fourth busiest of the 11 ambulance services in the county.

The Bigfork Fire Department began as a volunteer organization in 1941, and added emergency medical services in the 1970s. By the 2000s, a shortage of ambulance staffing was affecting the fire department and the Bigfork QRU, and the two merged in 2010.

As an ambulance service, the fire department has 24-hour advanced life-support coverage, which means paramedic-level training ready to assist. But due to the department’s volunteer roots, it didn’t have the structure in place to begin paying paramedics and EMTs.

Volunteer numbers have since shrunk, with only four volunteers now at the fire department. The rest have crossed over into paid status to work ambulance shifts, and federal law prohibits a worker from being paid for one task at a department while volunteering for another.

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