Tennessee firefighters letting house burn mimics 1980s Club 81 fire
Making the rounds in the national news this week is a story about firefighters in a Tennessee community who watched while a home burned to the ground. Something very similar once happened in Grand Forks, and because of a city law, it could happen...
Making the rounds in the national news this week is a story about firefighters in a Tennessee community who watched while a home burned to the ground. Something very similar once happened in Grand Forks, and because of a city law, it could happen again.
The law says that properties outside city limits are outside the fire department's jurisdiction unless they pay a fee and contract with the city for fire protection. If they don't, the department may intervene only to save a life or protect an adjacent property that is under contract.
In South Fulton, Tenn., there's a similar law.
The fire department there didn't initially respond to a call for help from the Cranick family when their rural home went up in flames. The family said it simply forgot to pay the $75 yearly fee. When the fire got so large it threatened the home of a neighbor who did pay, the fire department responded to protect that home but didn't lift a hand to save the Cranicks' home.
Grand Forks Fire Chief Pete O'Neill said that back in the 1980s, he faced that situation as a firefighter. Club 81 north of town was on fire on Jan. 12, 1986, which threatened an adjacent telephone company building. The department went out to protect the telephone building, he said, but watched while Club 81 burned. The Manvel (N.D.) Fire Department, which was responsible for the club, eventually put the fire out, he said.
He's surprised that this is such a big story, he said, because no doubt it has happened many times around the country.
If an uncontracted property in rural Grand Forks were on fire today, the city fire department wouldn't act any different than in that Club 81 case.
And it's not a very theoretical issue. There is at least one home that's in an island of unannexed land -- meaning it's technically outside city limits, though it's surrounded by city land.
O'Neill said the nearest rural fire department with jurisdiction over that home would have to respond, though those departments could ask the city for help and his firefighters would respond as a good neighbor.
A fire-protection contract with the city is a minimum of $1,084 a year. City law says it's based on what a taxpayer in city limits would pay, as part of their taxes, to support the fire department. The average Grand Forks homeowner pays about $660 in property taxes to the city; sales taxes, fees and federal grants that also support public safety functions aren't limited to city residents.
But that's mostly a moot point unless the property is within an area that the fire department believes it can reasonably serve.
Why is the law so harsh about whose homes will be saved?
"Taxpayers pay taxes for our services," O'Neill said. "If we're busy fighting someone else's fire, it affects what we can do for people paying our bills."
City Council member Curt Kreun, who heads the safety committee, said some people do move out of Grand Forks to avoid city taxes and fees.
The city really isn't set up to fight rural fires anyway because it relies on fire hydrants and doesn't have any tankers, O'Neill said. That's one reason why it has mutual aid agreements with fire departments in East Grand Forks and at the Grand Forks Air Force base, he said, but not rural fire departments.
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