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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Recent Wildfires Spur Josephine County Fire District Ballot Question

About 400 people turned out to a community meeting with fire managers in Merlin, Oregon, as the Taylor Creek Fire threatened hundreds of homes.
Emily Cureton
/
OPB
About 400 people turned out to a community meeting with fire managers in Merlin, Oregon, as the Taylor Creek Fire threatened hundreds of homes in July 2018.

Josephine County officials are again asking rural voters if they would like a publicly funded fire district. But this time, it’s in the form of an advisory question on the May 21 ballot.

That means if voters do decide they’d like a fire district, the county doesn't necessarily have to pursue it.

Josephine County’s most rural areas have long relied on a membership system with for-profit companies like Rural/Metro for fire protection. Members pay an annual fee, and non-members pay when services are used, which could cost them several thousand dollars.

If the county establishes a tax-funded fire district, that could mean the end of Rural/Metro services in the county. Even so, the company’s local fire chief Phil Turnbull says it supports the fire district initiative.

“Where would we be if the situation continues to deteriorate and we haven’t done everything within our power to move in favor of any possibility of improving it?” Turnbull said. “We have to support a move toward better fire protection.”

Josephine County commissioner Lily Morgan says the membership may have worked for the last few decades, but it’s not as reliable as a publicly run fire district.

“We have a subscription service that responds to every crash, every medical and every fire,” Morgan said.  “They are acting as a district, but really it’s giving a false sense of security because they’re doing that.”

That’s because while members pay a few hundred dollars every year, non-members can face bills exceeding $10,000 if a company responds to their home.

Morgan added that this ballot question was partially motivated by recent deadly wildfires in nearby Northern California towns.