'No man's land'

A 4-foot by 4-foot map is on display at the Vale Fire station on Thursday. The purple-and-white dashed line shows the boundary of the Vale Rural Fire District.

MALHEUR COUNTY — “No man’s land” is a term is commonly used among firefighters to describe a place lacking fire protection for structures and, sometimes, that means rangeland, too.

In many rural areas fitting that description, if a neighbor’s home, barn or other outbuilding is on fire — and the blaze has outgrown what could be quickly put out with a fire extinguisher, bucket or hose — it’s highly likely that structure will burn to the ground.

That’s just what happened in mid-December 2017, when a fire completely destroyed Tom and Joanne Mooney’s home at 3278 Little Valley Rd., Harper.

And although the loss was devastating, Joanne Mooney, in a phone interview on Friday, said she and her husband are planning to have a house rebuilt on the same spot. In fact, she said, there is potential that work could start sometime this week.

“We’re fortunate we had insurance, so we’re able to do that,” she said.

As for their house burning down, Mooney said it was tragic, but mentioned they’d seen this type of thing happen in that area before.

“You just grab what you can, stand back and thank God no one was in it when it burned down,” Mooney said.

Getting paramedics to Harper

A mutual aid agreement allowed an ambulance from Vale to respond to the residence for medical assistance.

In fact, according to Malheur County Ambulance District director Bob Dickinson, every mile of the county is covered for ambulance service — even areas that are “really desolate, in what is referred to as a Frontier Area.”

This allows paramedics to respond to remote areas, even ones without roads where they have to go in by four-wheeler, he said.

“It’s still covered, it just takes a while to get there,” Dickinson said.

And in the county’s more remote areas, such as those close to Harney or Winnemucca, he said, mutual aid agreements are in place with neighboring ambulance districts. These include nearby ambulance districts, too, such as Baker, Payette and Canyon counties.

In Harper, such an agreement does not exist with Vale Fire department, so no firefighters responded to Mooney’s fire.

Fire district boundaries are ‘a tough spot’

The reason Vale Fire didn’t respond is because its fire district ends at the very top of Vines Hill, according to Chief Jess Tolman.

According to information received from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office, responding outside of one’s district “depends upon the operational procedures for the district.”

“Harper and Little Valley are completely out of our fire district,” Tolman said. “By responding outside of our fire district, it would void mutual aid agreements” with Ontario and Nyssa fire departments.

When asked — boundaries aside — how it felt knowing a neighbor’s house was burning down and there was nothing he could do to help, Tolman had the following to say:

“You know, it hurts, because everybody on the department wanted to go,” he said. “I had a crew that could go, but because of jurisdiction bounds couldn’t go.”

Tolman said he could not easily justify going outside of boundaries and leaving his district uncovered in case something happened in Vale, Willowcreek, Jamieson or Brogan.

Ontario Fire Chief Terry Leighton echoed Tolman’s sentiment, saying the decision not to leave a district to fight a neighbor’s house fire is a tough one to make.

“All over the country, we have what’s called ‘no man’s land,’” he said. “Unfortunately there are some areas between

Vale and our rural district that are. That is sad, and hard for me and all the fire departments,” Leighton said.

Officials say there are many things to consider if faced with the choice, one of the main being response time, and whether there would be ample time to provide adequate assistance.

In addition, Leighton said, there is no Oregon law that would preclude a fire chief from leaving his district. However, if a chief decides to “go to no man’s land, I can’t expect others to come help me in that area,” saying it would be a personal choice.

Moreover, helping neighbors comes at a cost, which is why rural fire districts have been set up, allowing city fire departments to access areas outside town where individuals have paid for their help.

The financial factor only compounds the decision for the fire chief, Leighton said.

“It’s a tough spot, as far as pay,” he said.

To get funded for covering a structure fire outside their district, a fire department would have to convince homeowners to supplement the fees and cost for going and putting out the fire.

“It’s really a tough spot. It’s human nature, we want to help our neighbors, but to be in that spot — ‘Am I gonna do it or am I gonna be the bad guy and not do it?’ — is really hard,” Leighton said.

Protecting rural schools

Tolman said there is absolutely no fire coverage for structures in Harper. This includes Harper School, which boards its high school students Monday through Wednesday nights throughout the school year.

In addition to practicing monthly fire drills at the school, which has students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Superintendent Ron Talbot said the school has fire alarms, smoke detectors, sprinklers, wall-mounted hydrants with hose and some fire extinguishers. The dorms also have fire extinguishers.

With this equipment, it is hoped that school officials could “fight a small or immediate fire.” However, in the event a blaze raged beyond the control of the school’s firefighting apparatus, the building might become a total loss.

“I feel confident with students in the school, without having fire services, that we can get them out and away from the school — fire drills prove that,” Talbot said. “I’m not confident about the school remaining intact.”

The State Fire Marshal works to perform inspections of schools “on a regular basis,” according to information emailed from its office. These inspections include checking fire safety apparatus, exits and other details.

“In areas where local fire departments or districts do not have a fire marshal, the OSFM works with those agencies and local schools to perform inspections on a regular basis, typically every two to three years when possible,” the information states.

However, the last inspection at Harper was Feb. 9, 2010, and the next inspection is slated for early this year, according to the State Fire Marshal’s responses.

Schools outside of fire protection are not unique to Malheur County.

Based on information received from its 13 statewide deputy state fire marshals, the State Fire Marshal estimates there are roughly 40 schools located in unprotected’ areas.

The agency also works to help schools with conducting drills and “has developed and distributed to all school districts a helpful booklet called ‘Do the Drill,’” according to responses from the agency.

Although the State Fire Marshal does not mandate fire protection for schools that house students, there are “minimum adopted standards for construction of each facility within Oregon,” which are governed by the state’s Building Codes Division. “These minimum standards often fall in line with nationally recognized standards to ensure fire and life safety features within structures.” 

Protecting rangeland can provide buffer

A firefighting movement that in the last decade has become more widespread in rural areas of Malheur County is that of protecting rangelands from wildfires.

This type of fighting fires could potentially aid in structure protection, in that firefighters may attempt to dig trenches or create fire blocks to protect houses being threatened by such a fire.

There are several Rangeland Fire Protection Associations in Malheur County.

Ironside was the first to establish the rural model for local RFPA’s, in 1964. Other outlying areas in the county eventually followed suit, including Juntura in 2007, and Jordan Valley and Vale in 2008.

RFPA firefighters do not fight structure fires.

“We’re not trained for structures,” Robert McElroy, secretary of Vale RFPA said. “We might go if a house fire spread to grass and threatened some range ground, but we’re not trained or capable of putting out a residence fire.”

In some cities that are rural but incorporated, such as Jordan Valley, many agencies work together on everything from range fires to structure fires.

The Jordan Valley Volunteer Fire Department, like many outlying fire departments, is all-volunteer based; the city crew eventually helping rural neighbors was spurred on by the community.

Mike Quintero, one of Jordan Valley’s volunteer firefighters, said distance was the driving factor that spread firefighters’ reach to rural areas.

“We’re so far away from everything. We had to find a way to help these ranchers, especially those on the outskirts of the community,” he said.

And the community extends outward. The Snake River Fire Chief’s Association was set up to “tie all the little fire departments” together in case they need mutual aid, Quintero said.

As for the lack of structure protection in other rural places, Quintero suggested citizens form a rural fire district.

“I think ranchers really appreciate that. … The response time may not be the greatest because of distance, but if you can at least get there to try to help and save whatever structure you can, it’s such a tremendous, good thing.”

Is there a solution for protecting rural structures?

According to information from its deputy state fire marshals, the State Fire Marshal reports that approximately 70 communities statewide lie outside of fire protection. Furthermore, the agency maintains that fire protection is a local option, and not mandated by the state.

“In many unincorporated areas, fire protection districts have been formed to provide fire protection services. In most cases, fire department and districts, whether rural or urban are funded by property taxes,” according to emailed responses from Richard Hoover, public information officer for the State Fire Marshal.

Since the Mooney’s house fire, Tolman said, one person has approached Vale Fire about how to get aid for structure fires in Harper.

A mutual aid agreement, such as the one in Brogan, could be one solution. Approximately 24 miles north of Vale, Brogan lies within the Vale Fire District. It has a substation and a Quick Response Unit. Fire equipment stationed is provided by Vale, and includes a pumper and a wildland engine. Tolman said there is one volunteer at this time who could “provide a quick attack” until Vale could arrive if need be.

Such a setup could also be feasible for Harper. But a request to be included in the Vale Fire District, thereby benefiting from mutual aid, would have to come from Harper citizens.

“Acceptance into a fire district is always dependent on the fire department and the community,” according to information from the State Fire Marshal.

Although the agency doesn’t have the authority to create fire districts or departments, “We always encourage and support any community effort to have the amount of fire protection they want.”

Even before his service time with Vale Fire, Tolman said, the department had “tried multiple times in the past to create an agreement with community members in Harper.”

Former Vale Fire Chief Todd Hesse recalled “several structure fires” in Harper and West Fall during his time leading the department.

“Each time, they would call nine-one-one, and unfortunately since it’s in ‘no man’s land’ there is no organized response.”

Because of this, Vale Fire reached out to residents trying to get something going for mutual aid, but the challenges are that the areas are unincorporated and there is no one person who has an official capacity.

“There’s no city council, no government agency, so it would have to be a grassroots type of thing,” Hesse said. “Without organization, [previous efforts] fizzled out. We were prepared in the past to work out a solution or see if one could be worked out.”

The first step to get mutual aid to Harper would be interest from the residents, he said. Following that, there would need to be the establishment of a rural fire board, then a needs-and-risk analysis by Vale Fire, and finding the cost established with getting firefighting equipment housed in that area.

Still today, Hesse said, he would “love to see” something like a fire-related QRU set up in Harper.

The Harper School superintendent, who travels from Ontario to Harper for work, said he would think people in the Harper area “ would want access to fire support and be willing to pay for it.”

He recalled a house that had burned to the ground two or three years prior.

“It was maybe one mile across from where Mooney’s house burned to the ground,” he said. “We just sat and watched it.”

Joanne Mooney agreed that a lot of talk of structure protection among Harper and Little Valley residents had been going for years.

“Since it’s not an incorporated town, it’s so hard to get anything going like that, because there are so few people,” she said. “There’s been a lot of talk about it, but there’s no money.”

Mooney said she, personally, feels “too old” to get involved in anything to get volunteer firefighting going in Harper.

However, she added, “It would be wonderful to have some type of fire protection.”

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