The Indian Valley Fire Department survived the Dixie Fire, and was bolstered by other departments throughout the state that donated new equipment, but now insurance premiums threaten to kill the department. File photo by Meg Upton

The fire department survived the Dixie Fire, but will insurance companies kill it?

Editor’s Note: The Indian Valley Fire Department survived the Dixie Fire, but now its existence is threatened by insurance companies. This all-volunteer department is looking at a 1,000 percent increase in its total outlay for premiums, surpassing its annual budget. Fire Chief Bob Orange —who is a retired state game warden, a reserve deputy for the sheriff’s office, a former hot shot with the Forest Service, and now the volunteer fire chief — made an impassioned plea to the Plumas County Board of Supervisors for direction June 28. Following is the text of Chief Orange’s remarks:

Clear Creek Fire Chief John Hunter hands Greenville Fire Chief Bob Orange, right, a check for $6,500 last September. He will need many more such checks to pay the new annual insurance premiums. Photo submitted

I am here to give the status of insurance companies’ responses to our Indian Valley Fire Department in light of the Dixie Fire.  I would not be here talking to you if this was not a very serious situation.

All of our insurance policies have been recently canceled.  We were forced to search for new policies.

The auto policy for our engines has gone from $4,400 a year to $45,000.  Liability insurance for volunteers has gone from $1,600 to $22,000.  For our building insurance, we have had to go to the last resort of the California Fair Share plan.  It has gone to $53,000.  Workmen’s Comp is $12,000.

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Bottom line: Our insurance policy premiums have gone up over 1,000 percent.  Total cost of insurance premiums is now $132,000.  The fire department’s normal overall budget is $150,000 although we have gone up to $180,000 with grants and adjustments.  Right now, insurance premiums are 88 percent of the fire department’s budget.

I want to explain the vehicle insurance a little further.  We only have comprehensive for two engines which is required — an OES loaner engine and a rescue rig we purchased 18 years ago on a 20-year loan.  I want to further explain we have not made claims on the fire department fleet since I have been there.  No claims during the Dixie Fire yet automobile insurance went up 10-fold.

We are currently in design for the new fire station to be built in Greenville.  This is to be a joint facility incorporating the Greenville Sheriff Substation (which was lost in the fire) and also the Plumas District Hospital ambulance crew quarters (they were also lost in the fire).  The ambulance would have an engine bay to work out of, and the facility would also incorporate a kitchen and living quarters for them.  The IVCSD (Indian Valley Community Services District) has 5 acres of land just outside of Greenville on Highway 89.  That is where our temporary station is now. The plan is to have law enforcement, fire and medical all at one location.  We felt this would be best for the community and easy access for the public.  We have contracted with NST Engineering of Susanville which is designing the blueprints and master plan as I speak.  This needs to be done ASAP as OES will cease paying for the temporary fire station that has been put up in Greenville.  The contract and OES payments end Sept. 30.  Then IVFD is liable for the $60,000 paid per month for buildings and generators on site.

We have estimated out the probable insurance rate for this new fire/medical/law enforcement building in light of what they are now charging us for our remaining three stations.  I figure it to be about $75,000 a year, maybe more.  So projected insurance costs are now $207,000 a year vs a $150,000-$180,000 fire department budget.

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This fire department is 100 percent volunteer; nobody is paid including myself though past chiefs have received a salary. I preferred to have the chief’s salary to go back into the fire department to purchase much needed personal protective clothing, gear and communications equipment lost in the fire.

No money goes to salaries showing you that this is a very frugal and, what was a relatively inexpensive department, to run.  We currently have fire stations in Taylorsville, North Arm and Genesee.  It might be suggested that we close a couple of our stations to save costs.  Stations are located where they are for a reason that many people do not know.  On a normal insurance policy request they want to know the distance to the nearest fire station.  If you are within 5 miles of a station you get a break in insurance premium.  Our stations are located somewhat 10 miles apart so that the residents get the benefit of having a nearby fire station to lower their insurance premium.  If we close a station, the residents will automatically go into a higher premium category.

The IVFD is now flush with good operational engines allowing us to get rid of antique rigs.  Truckee Meadows Fire (Washoe County) donated a beautiful 4X4 Type I Engine to us; San Ramon Valley in the Bay Area donated an immaculate Type I Engine along with a rescue support rig; the City of Redlands donated an immaculate Type 3 Engine; and Central Calaveras Fire also donated a Type 3 Wildland 4WD Engine which we just had repainted and is awaiting pickup in Oroville.

So, our main operational budget issue is not apparatus replacement, salaries nor volunteer personnel.  We lost half of our members to the Dixie Fire because of volunteers’ homes being lost and also having to find jobs elsewhere.  But we have also gained new members the past couple months so we are back to our previous numbers.  The future looked really good for the IVFD —I have ordered all new wildland protective gear, portable radios, pagers and mobile radios.  One of the biggest issues we had during the Dixie Fire was being able to communicate with many of the out-of-county rigs that were here.  We did not have the tactical frequencies that strike teams were operating on in our fire district so we were unable to communicate.  We have ordered portable and mobile radios to fix that problem.  A new prominent Greenville Fire Station was going to be a huge visible boon to the community.

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Now, if we build the station, we will be automatically way over our budget and with no money to operate with.  Insurance premiums will be higher than our budget.  As soon as a new station is built, we have to close up shop.  We must have liability insurance to operate.

With our current situation of insurance premiums at 88 percent of our income — after paying for fuel, propane for heating engine bays and electricity — there is no more funds.  We will have nothing left for the infrastructure to support the volunteer firefighters and apparatuses.  We will be unable to sustain long term operations after our reserves are exhausted.

As a result of the fire department shutting down, I predict all the houses and businesses in our district will have current insurance policies canceled and will have to go to the last resort California Fair Share Plan; if they do not have it already.  My home was canceled by Nationwide Insurance three years ago and I had to go to the Fair Share Plan.  Rates tripled.  I believe that will happen with the remaining homes.  Traditionally IFVD receives approximately 450 calls a year.  We also respond to the vehicle accidents on Highway 89 in that area.

Insurance companies are putting a pure volunteer fire department out of business.  By doing so they will be forcing homeowners and businesses to lose their insurance, causing rates to go up.  They are padding their own nest.  I have spoken to other fire departments outside this county.  IVFD is being singled out with much higher rates and hit the hardest.   Other fire departments in the county are also seeing higher insurance premiums.  I believe Meadow Valley Fire insurance went from $4,000 to $17,000.

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The Dixie Fire came through and hit us hard, really hard and injured us.  But IVFD survived and the fire department is in the process of recovering.  Actually, rebuilding is a more accurate term.  But now, nearly a year later after the firestorm, the insurance companies have decided to go back and do what Dixie could not – destroy the fire department. They are literally murdering Indian Valley Fire and putting us in a coffin.

It is sadly ironic that the outfit that is most directly responsible for being able to reduce insurance losses and premiums is being targeted.  Eliminated.  You would think they could create a variance and try to help.  The old adage of “cutting off your nose to spite your face” certainly applies here.

I really, really hope the media can pick this up and educate people at all levels of our situation.  I believe it is a precursor for all the other fire departments in this county and for other counties.  This problem must be elevated to get a solution.  Something must be done — I do not know what — but something.  I would appreciate any insight or help the Board would have.

(The fire department is working with its insurance broker Flanigan-Leavitt to find options.)

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