CANYON CITY – A new working group will attempt to hash out concerns about a Zone 1 fire patrol rate hike request and fire protection strategies on rural private lands.

The Grant County Court decided to form the group, drawing from Oregon Department of Forestry staff and local landowners, at the close of a two-hour meeting last Wednesday, March 4.

The session drew about 40 people to County Courthouse to discuss the so-called Zone 1 lands and vent frustrations about rising fire patrol costs.

Grant County is the only county that embraced Zone 1 when it was proposed in the 1940s for the marginal private lands adjacent to grazing and forest lands. It was part of a push to have fire protection for all property. Currently about 244,000 acres in Grant County are assessed as Zone 1, and owners this year paid 30 cents per acre for fire patrol.

The other rural lands fall into timber and grazing categories, which are assessed at higher rates.

George Ponte, ODF Central Oregon District forester, said the agency’s “bottom line” request is for a rate of 35 cents per acre for Zone 1 lands. The agency previously got approval for that rate, but a clerical error resulted in the rate staying at 30 cents.

ODF’s Eastern Oregon Area director, Travis Medema, noted the cost of the 2013 and 2014 fire seasons, which he called extremely expensive for the department. He said the seasons tallied $200 million in large-fire costs.

For the coming year, he cited the continuing extreme drought and low snowpack – 20 percent or less than normal across the state – as warning signs.

“It doesn’t bode well for the 2015 fire season,” he said.

Ponte noted that the county’s original agreement in 1944 set a 5-cent rate for the zone, but legislative changes in the 1980s paved the way for “incremental increases” over the years. He also said the Zone 1 money counts as an offset in calculating the grazing land assessment for the district.

Landowners are urging the Court to resist any increase and also to seek changes in the way ODF deals with fires on those lands.

Mark Webb, a Mt. Vernon area landowner and former county judge, said the rate and the form of protection are supposed to be “a joint effort” of the county and the state.

“That hasn’t been happening,” he said.

He also said with the cost of firefighting and the size of fires on the rise, ODF will be back again for another rate hike. He and others urged more proactive measures such as prescribed burning to make those lands more resilient in fires.

“We need to be doing something different, like the Forest Service is doing,” Webb said. “That goes beyond just having three more pumper trucks.”

He said the conversation about the shape of fire protection is already underway at the federal level.

“It’s time to have it at the state level,” he said.

Some vented their frustration with past fires and how the agency has handled fires.

Several cited that the Grouse Mountain Complex as an example.

“Lots of money was wasted on that fire,” said Fox rancher Mary Ellen Brooks, saying that wouldn’t have happened if ODF was managed like a business.

Jeff Thomas of Kimberly said when fires struck his family’s land, ODF has turned down requests for firefighting efforts or sent inadequate response.

“We put it out – the landowners,” he said. “The problem isn’t that you don’t have enough money, the problem is that you don’t fight the fire.”

Thomas said performance is an issue, and another 5 cents won’t change that.

“My negotiating starting point would not be 30 cents – I’d lower it down and start at 20 cents,” he said.

Others cited incidents where fire crews told landowners they could not fight fires on their own land.

Ponte said that should not happen, and he stressed that owners can fight fires on their property.

While the form of protection was a big issue, the existence of a Zone 1 rate remains a sticking point for some.

John Day rancher Ken Holliday said the Zone 1 situation, unique to Grant County, is “a class action suit in the making.”

He said the money should be staying in Grant County, but it is subsidizing fire operations in other counties that have unprotected land. And the cost continues to rise for fire patrol, he noted.

“Some people in this room are paying 69 to 75 percent of their Grant County tax bill to ODF,” he said. “What are we getting for that?”

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