Archive for July 22nd, 2007

by jhwygirl

Driving west from Missoula, many of you may have seen the billboards for Frenchtown Rural Fire District (FRFD) advertising for volunteers. It’s not very often you see big expensive billboards used to put out a call for volunteers, so it’s pretty plain to see that FRFD is hurting for volunteers for an important community service.

With all the new subdivisions popping up all over Missoula County, one might assume that with those expanding number of households would come an expanding number of volunteers – but apparently that isn’t true. The Evaro Fire Station, because of the lack of volunteers, may have to close.

That, coupled with a budget crisis in which $300,000 mill levy failed in May, is bringing to rural Missoula County a crisis that has been creeping upon rural fire companies across the United States. FRFD stretches from Mineral County to Frenchtown, and encompasses the huge area of Frenchtown, Huson, Upper Nine Mile, Petty Creek, Six Mile and Alberton. Frenchtown has not raised its mill levy since 1991.

Anger towards growth is what long-time residents are fighting, and they are taking it out, hell-be-damned with the consequences, on FRFD. Six Mile resident John Appelt, a retired Chicago firefighter sums up his feelings like this:

This is our fire department. We own it. We will decide what level of services it provides. We’ll decide how much in taxes to pay.

We don’t want anything to do with Missoula. They descend upon us, telling us what to do in our own backyard. They are 180 degrees different from us. We are very clannish here. I would have seceded from Missoula so I don’t have to pay for things like open space. I have all the open space I need. Why would I pay for more? I was outvoted by a bunch of liberal college punks.

Translation: I’ve got mine, now the hell with the rest of you. Welcome to the neighborhood, I guess?

Shannone Hart, who was born and raised in Frenchtown but now lives in Missoula, wrote a guest column in the Missoulian back on June 28, in reply to Mr. Appelt’s comments. Her well written piece took offense at his use of the word “clannish” for his neighbors and community members – I sure wished the Missoulian archived these local guest column pieces – and she quite righteously took him to task:

My three generations of family members helped make the community where Mr. Appelt now lives in. We helped shape that community with the help of other people and we helped make it a desirable place to live. Mr. Appelt obviously saw this hardwork pay off, as he sold his place in Chicago and moved into the valley that others before him helped to mold.

Those three generations dealt with obstacles along the way, just as Mr. Appelt and other Frenchtown community members currently are. Everyone needs to understand that everyone wants what is best for the community as a whole, not what is best for select individuals.

Nestled in her wonderfully written response, Ms. Hart also added this tidbit, explaining to Mr. Appelt why he was wrong to think that budget cuts were the simplistic answer to FRFD’s woes:

Mr. Appelt and others would like to restore the fire department to its 1962 vestige; however they are not dealing with a 1962 community. Folks simply can not volunteer that much time anymore. Home prices are very high and most families are holding down multiple jobs to keep their heads above water.

Ms. Hart paints a picture of that which is at the core of FRFD’s woes – a shortage of volunteers due to the high cost of housing and a lack of enough personal time to allow for volunteer commitments. A sad but very real reality that is facing not only rural Missoula County, but communities all over the state that rely on volunteer firefighters.

As another stark example of what a lack of volunteers can do to a community – exhibit the community of West Yellowstone – who’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating was recently downgraded from a 7 to a 10. A 10 rating is the equivalent of essentially no fire protection coverage at all. This downgrading will cost the West Yellowstone Day’s Inn an increase of $15,000 per year for insurance coverage.

$15,000 per year.

Fire Chief Jason Catrambone explained that while the rating had to do with both staffing and training, without enough qualified personnel, the ladder truck meant very little. “The only true issue is staffing.”

Other issues stem from a lack of volunteers – one being an aging volunteer base – already (remember?) shrinking because of a lack of volunteers. Of the 48 volunteers with FRFD, 14 have less than one year of experience, while 12 have more than one and less than 3 years of experience. Only 11 volunteers have 7 or more years of experience.

Less than 1 in 4 with more than 7 years experience.

The time of volunteers that hopped off their bar stools to answer a fire siren are gone – being a firefighter requires training and commitment. Lack of experience not only increases the risk to both the community and its structures, but also its firefighters. Fighting fire in rural Missoula – rural Montana- is no easy task. We’ve got structures large and small, old and new, grasslands, cropland, and timber. Training is pretty darn diverse and necessary.


A lack of housing that is affordable to its community members has serious impacts. Not only does everything from your car repair work to hamburgers cost more, but government services cost more because hiring that county clerk to process your license plate request means that the county has to pay a wage that is conducive to keeping an adequate county employee on staff. It means that your taxes have to be set at such a level that supports essential services that are needed to keep a community running. Everything from that county clerk to the county sheriff to the paid or volunteer firefighter to the county attorney to the support staff at the county commissioner’s office.

And that same holds true for the City, which goes without saying now, doesn’t it?

Over the last 20 years or so I’ve had many a conversation with those who think that affordable housing really isn’t that important – but in that same breath they would say that police and fire service are.

How much do you really want to pay out of your own pocket to keep yourself protected with an adequately trained, prepared and supplied police and fire? How much is an increase in your taxes worth if it means preventing a $15,000 increase in cost for insurance?

Or might it not be better to look at one of the root problems of the issue at hand, and look, comprehensively, at the problem that the lack of affordable housing means to a community?

When a community lacks affordable housing it lacks economic viability. That is pretty plain to me.

This is the first piece of many more to come on the subject of essential affordable housing.

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