When a fire occurs in Plumas County, armies of first responders are on the scene. However, good fire departments don’t come cheap and Plumas County residents might get a surprise bill for fire response.
Beckwourth resident Cody McCollum is disputing a $10,730 bill from the Beckwourth Fire Department after a building he rented on Industrial Way burned down Feb. 22. McCollum said not only was the bill a shock, but the lack of activity by the fire department on the scene made the total even more confusing.
“What I am angry about is that they sat there,” said McCollum. “They watched it burn and they wouldn’t let anyone do anything else.”
The fire occurred at McCollum’s heavy equipment repair shop, a metal building with a wooden addition on the side. McCollum said it is suspected that the fire started because of a rechargeable flashlight in the wooden building, which then slowly travelled into his shop.
McCollum claimed the fire department arrived on the scene while the wooden building was the only part on fire. He said the firefighters chose not to fight the fire, and just monitored it for hours.
“They claimed at the beginning it was for environmental reasons,” he said.
McCollum watch as the fire spread from the addition, into his shop where his service truck and customer equipment went up in flames. The fire department did spray some water on a nearby propane tank and some debris on fire, but McCollum said the department never sprayed the building itself.
After the building was destroyed, the fire department left and Cody’s landlords received a bill for fire recovery services from the department.
Billing for fire services
It is not uncommon for fire departments to bill for fire suppression services. According to the International Fire Chiefs Association, cost recovery fees are comparable to a user fee, and often only occur for out of district residents.
Though McCollum’s business is less than a mile away from the Beckwourth Fire Department, his building was not annexed into the district.
According to Graeagle Fire Chief Ed Ward, many Plumas County fire departments only bill when they fight a fire outside of their district. Many fire departments in the county also adopted the same fee schedule, however some chose to charge more.
“It is not fair for me to take my taxpayers’ money to cover another area,” Ward said in reference to needing to bill outside districts.
Beckwourth billing strategy
Beckwourth Fire District adheres to a different fee schedule, and passed a policy about three years ago that authorized the billing of both out of district and in district structure fires due to a provision in homeowner’s insurance that allows for cost recovery.
“We were told that almost all home insurance policies have a provision whereby they will pay the fire department that comes to fight the fire, typically it is about $500, and it will vary depending on policies,” said Beckwourth Fire Department District Board Chair George Bundy at the district’s regular board meeting on May 17. “So we said ‘okay that is money that is there it does not impact the property owner in any way.’ They receive the bill; they simply hand it off to their insurance company.”
“At the time it seemed like it was a good policy,” Bundy continued. “However, in hindsight we are now finding out that there are properties within the fire district that don’t have home insurance.”
McCollum’s business was not inside the Beckwourth district, and it also did not have homeowner’s insurance.
Bundy said the board is considering rescinding that policy, but took no action at the meeting due to a lack of background information.
In district or out of district?
“The lawyer we had at the time told us we couldn’t discriminate between in district or out of district, that legislation since has changed,” said Beckwourth Fire Chief Greg McCaffrey.
McCaffrey continued to say the fire department bills on a hourly basis. According to McCollum’s bill, one fire engine on scene is $400 an hour. Command on scene is $250 an hour. At the incident on Industrial Way, there were a total of four engines on the scene for a period of 7.25 hours making the rate $1,850 an hour.
“The taxpayers are not paying for us to go outside of the district to fight a fire,” said McCaffrey. “We have to recoup those costs somehow.”
The members of the public at the fire district meeting had questions about the ambiguity of the in district and out of district policy. Bundy stated that there will be a public meeting at the Sierra Valley Church on Monday, June 11, at 4:30 p.m. with LAFCo representatives to discuss annexation, and sphere of influence questions for fire districts.