The rural district south of Corvallis has no formal fire protection, but not everyone wants it

Benton County Commissioner Jay Dixon never gave much thought to rural fire protection until about five years ago. Then, one day in 2008, a recreational vehicle caught fire at the Greenberry Tavern, a few miles south of Corvallis where Greenberry Road intersects Highway 99W.

“Our deputies arrived on the scene, and all they could do, because it wasn’t inside any fire district, was watch the thing burn to the ground,” Dixon said.

“That caught my attention.”

That’s when Dixon discovered the Greenberry Gap, a 27,000-acre no man’s land without professional fire protection. Bracketed by the Willamette River, Corvallis, Monroe and Philomath, it’s a sparsely settled district of scattered farms that falls outside the boundary of any rural fire protection district.

While the Oregon Department of Forestry will send a crew to battle brush fires in forested areas, none of the neighboring fire districts will respond to fight a structure fire unless there’s a direct threat to life, leaving more than 500 buildings — including 152 homes — without professional fire protection.

So Dixon started investigating the possibility of bringing the uncovered area into one of the three neighboring rural fire protection districts. The Corvallis, Philomath and Monroe fire chiefs were willing, they told the commissioner, as long as they could do it in contiguous chunks of territory — they didn’t want to have to cover scattered islands of ground.

Of course, the board of directors of each fire district would have to sign off on any annexations, along with the county Board of Commissioners. And it would be best all around if all the property owners involved were on board with the idea.

And that’s where it gets complicated.

Not everyone living in the Greenberry Gap wants to be part of a fire protection district.

A self-reliant bunch

The area’s farmers tend to be an independent lot. They’re used to doing things for themselves, including providing their own fire protection.

Just about all of them, it seems, have some sort of makeshift firefighting equipment, and some of the larger operators have some very sophisticated rigs.

People keep an eye on each other’s property, and when the call for help goes out, the neighbors come running.

Dixon and fellow Commissioners Linda Modrell and Annabelle Jaramillo got a taste of that independence at a community meeting held in 2009 to discuss the idea of annexing Greenberry landowners into one of the neighboring fire protection districts.

“After that meeting, a group of farmers came to see me,” Dixon recalled, “and they said, ‘We don’t want to stop anyone from being in a fire district, we just don’t want to be in it.’”

County officials acknowledge that opposition hasn’t softened any in the intervening years, and two large-scale landowners contacted last week by the Gazette-Times reaffirmed their position.

While neither would agree to be quoted by name, both offered multiple objections to joining a fire district.

First on the list was cost. Landowners in a rural fire district pay a surcharge on their property tax. The rate in the Philomath district is $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation; Monroe charges $1.6854, and Corvallis gets $2.114.

The county assessor’s office calculates the average cost to join one of the districts would be $226, but the number could be much higher for people with large holdings and lots of improvements.

In addition, some farmers dispute the county’s contention that joining a district would save them any money on fire insurance given the fact that they would still be many miles from the nearest manned substation.

And some object to anything that would give government officials a reason to come onto their land.

“I will fight it tooth and toenail,” one farmer said.

Dissenting opinions

Others, however, take a very different view.

Walt and Judy Smith own a small farm on Dorr Road, a dirt lane that wanders off toward the Willamette River from the southern end of Smith Loop, named for one of Walt’s forebears.

Like everyone else in the neighborhood, they have their own firefighting equipment, including an old truck with a 600-gallon water tank on the back. But they’re getting on in years — he’s 70, she’s 68 — and the lack of fire department coverage makes them nervous.

“We are jumpy during the dry season because of the fact that we don’t have fire protection,” Judy said.

They know they can count on the neighbors to help if need be, but they’ve had some close calls. In the ’80s they lost a barn to arson, and around 1970 a nearby grass field burn jumped the fire lines and threatened their house.

“We had neighbors running around with ’dozers cutting fire breaks,” Walt said. “I had the pasture irrigated, so it swept around us, but it came close to the barn.”

Fire insurance in the area is cost prohibitive, they say, and they’ve talked to people who’ve been unable to get their mortgages refinanced because they’re not in a fire district.

They’d like the chance to be annexed, but they know that won’t happen unless the neighbors — all of them — go along.

“We’re small potatoes,” Judy said. “There’s a lot of people with big acreages that would have to pay a lot of money.”

Despite the opposition from many in the district, county officials have continued to lay the groundwork for bringing fire protection to the area. Now, for the first time, one small piece of the Greenberry Gap is on the verge of annexation.

The 1.5-square-mile area, a narrow neck of land known as the Northpoint Annexation, is in the northwest corner of the gap, south of Airport Avenue and east of Bellfountain Road. Accessed by Cutler Lane, the rural neighborhood has fewer than a dozen property owners, all of whom have expressed interest in joining a fire district.

The Corvallis Rural Fire District board of directors has already voted to annex part of the area, and the Philomath Rural Fire District board will consider at a meeting Monday night whether to absorb the rest.

“It’s a good test case for what the county’s trying to do,” said Philomath Fire Chief Tom Phelps.

No guarantees

But the decision is far from a slam dunk.

Phelps said the annexed area would only bring in an estimated $1,769 in tax revenue annually while further extending his mostly volunteer force.

“We have to balance the good of the district against the needs of the people at the edge of the district,” he said.

If there’s one thing Dixon has learned in five years of working to bridge the Greenberry Gap, it’s patience.

“We’ve said from the very beginning that we’re not going to force someone into a fire district or force any fire district to take anyone in,” he said. “There has to be a willing property owner and a fire district that’s willing to take them in.”

But he’s not losing sight of the ultimate goal. Despite the objections of independent-minded farmers and the qualms of cautious fire boards, Dixon said he’s determined to bring fire protection to the entire area, no matter how long it takes.

“The fact is we have a lot of properties and a lot of structures that aren’t protected,” Dixon said. “And sooner or later, we’re going to have someone hurt or killed.”

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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