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MD hears concerns over firefighting costs

Thursday, 21 January 2021. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

MD hears concerns over firefighting costs
By Sean Oliver

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The last thing anybody wants to find out is their property is on fire.

Such was the scenario Pincher Creek MD resident Mark Burles found himself in back on Aug. 24. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in the blaze, but Mr. Burles found the fire burned not only grass and trees but also a good chunk of his pocketbook after the MD sent him a bill for $52,603.

Although the fire started off Mr. Burles’s property in a ditch, the expense of fire crews putting out the fire on his property falls on his shoulders.

Mr. Burles attended the Jan. 12 virtual regular council meeting for the MD of Pincher Creek to bring his concerns forward.

“The one problem I really have with this is people are going to react by not calling the fire department at all if they think they can handle it or by sending them home as quickly as they could,” Mr. Burles said, creating significant risk in order to avoid expensive firefighting costs.

Even though he is insured, Mr. Burles told council his insurance company is willing to pay only $10,000 of the total expense. He encouraged the MD to make its residents more publicly aware of what insurance options are out there.

The current bylaw dictating who is liable for fire, said Mr. Burles, is too simplistic and leaves landowners on the hook for something that is ultimately beyond their control.

“I’m sympathetic towards the MD needing provisions recovered, but there’s no need to create a situation where it is uncontested and unresolvable,” Mr. Burles continued.

He added that an appeal system should be established for residents to contest exorbitant bills. In his particular case, the bill included expenses for multiple trucks that arrived on site after Mr. Burles and his neighbours had already begun battling the fire, with most of the fire trucks not actually required to do anything.

Since the fire did not originate on his land and was not his fault, Mr. Burles argued the cost should fall on the MD. “It’s just right,” he concluded.

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Council opened up the meeting for other residents to express their concerns. Harold Hollingshead, who helped with the fire, also called for a way to appeal bills from the fire department.

“The bill’s a farce because most of the trucks didn’t even put water to a flame,” he said. “It looks like the fire department is going to send everything there, and they’re going to charge even though that truck never attempted to get to the fire.”

“I was at the fire before the fire department got there,” Mr. Hollingshead continued, “and I look at the bill and if it wasn’t so serious it’d be laughable. There has to be some scrutiny.”

The main issue, he added, was the lack of control landowners have over what the fire department provides as services. Generally, the adage “It is better to have and not need than to need and not have” are wise words to live by, but landowners should have more of a say when it results in a bill worth tens of thousands of dollars.

If the cause of the fire was someone else’s doing, the responsibility technically falls on them, though investigating the cause of the fire, said Jim Welsch, didn’t seem to be much of a priority.

“How much effort was put into actually finding the perpetrator who started these fires? I personally don’t think it would be that hard,” Mr. Welsch said. 

“There wasn’t a lot of traffic on that road — the road was closed,” he continued. “Personally, I went to a lot of people, neighbours in the area, [and] no one was ever contacted and asked any questions about the fire.”

The issue of determining liability and culpability, added Barbara Boyer, was concerning because it too easily left landowners in the lurch.

“I get a bill for covering the cost of fighting the fire on my property, but it didn’t start on my property — where’s the MD to help us with that?” she asked. “Because it sounds like this could be a nightmare from heck.”

While understanding residents’ concerns, Reeve Brian Hammond said the problem extended beyond a simple fix from the MD.

“What we need to get out of folks is that we’re the guy who’s responsible for all this, but all we are is the messenger, whether you like it or not,” he said.

Finding a solution to how fair the current definition of liability is, Coun. Terry Yagos added, was something that needed to be done.

“We have to solve this issue, because there’s a lot of people with the virus and that are heading out to the backwoods and camping and everything. We’re going to have more fires and landowners nearby don’t want to get billed for something they have no control over,” he said.

For the time being, Coun. Bev Everts suggested a temporary suspension on collecting Mr. Burles’s bill should be enacted until further investigation could take place.

“I guess if you think of a bill like Mr. Burles has, I wouldn’t be sleeping very well at night knowing that my insurance company was only going to be paying $10,000 of that,” she said.

Council determined further communication with the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission was needed before any firm decision could be made.

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