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Whitefish Fire Service Area dividing the community

| May 28, 2020 1:00 AM

I am a homeowner of 29 years in Hidden Valley, just down the road from the Whitefish Rural Fire Hall. I am very concerned about the urban/wild land interface and the threat of a wildfire in our wooded rural area north of Hodgson Road in between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. 93 to the east and west and north to Montana 40.

The Whitefish Fire Department has a 90-second response time with its fulltime professional 24-hour fire crew and fully equipped fire station.

The WFSA board is considering an all-volunteer rural fire station. Volunteers are unreliable and are generally inconsistently available. Their proposal cannot match that of the city of Whitefish for the 3,000 homeowners in the WFSA. Their plan to separate the partnership with the Whitefish Fire Department is a failed one, without any justification.

I am opposed to denying the will of all of the public comment and recklessly acting on our behalf by severing the relationship with the Whitefish Fire Department and the WFSA by becoming the first line of response, as the board proposed in their notice dated May 1.

I received the notice on or about May 8, informing me of a comment due by June 1, less than the proper noticing of 30 days. I only found out about the WFSA meeting on May 19 when I drove by the fire hall and saw the notice on the window. I tried to find the Whitefish Rural Volunteer Fire Hall on Google Maps, to no avail. Google Maps took me to the Whitefish Fire Department, or to the home of Mr. Carlson. Nothing led me to the corner of Whitefish Stage Road and Hodgson Road, the location of the Whitefish Rural Fire Hall.

Why would the WFSA board not inform property owners of their meeting held on May 19 in the mailing dated May 1? I attended the WFSA meeting on May 19 and was curious as to the position of the Chair, Mark Carlson. He immediately looked at a board member and told them they were no longer on the board. They responded that they were on the WFSA board thru May 31. As the meeting progressed, County Commissioner Phil Mitchell seemed to ultimately run the meeting. I have yet to receive minutes of the meeting held May 19, where 100% of the attendees where opposed to an all volunteer fire department as the first response and severing the relationship with the Whitefish Fire Department - after about 2 hours of public comment.

I do want to thank the board for hosting the meeting on May 19 with chairs set 6 feet apart in the fire hall. There were about 100 plus folks in attendance, with most wearing masks. I find it interesting that the WFSA board members (except one) sat close together, did not wear masks and paid little attention to Roberts Rule of Order. Commissioner Phil Mitchell seemed to be running the show, yet he is not on the board and was listed as a guest.

Apparently, Phil Mitchell worked a full day on May 19, (which he stated repeatedly) to research fire districts and community member’s opinions. He stated he had quite a bit of experience. He had worked with the Olney Fire Department in the past. Did Phil Mitchell listen to the current Fire Chief in Olney whose volunteer department has dwindled to five volunteers? 70 percent of their calls are EMS accident related on the deadly U.S. 93. The Olney Fire Department responds as they can and manage the scene until the city of Whitefish EMS can get there – miraculously, in about 20 minutes. Or, did Phil listen to the testimony of the previous 15-year career fire chief in Columbia Falls followed by five years at the volunteer Bad Rock Canyon station? From experience, he firmly stated volunteers are not efficient and it is a system that does not work for homeowner safety.

I do not understand why the WFSA board would not inform neighbors of its activity, meetings and actions on our behalf. I strongly encourage the WFSA board to immediately reconsider and table this notion of disbanding the contract with the city of Whitefish, professional fire department.

Fire is an issue that should unite us as a community. The WFSA board has chosen to divide us. Many folks commented that this is what government is for and they want to pay for a reliable Fire Department in the WFSA.

—Joan Vetter Ehrenberg, Whitefish