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Fate of 70 Mile fire department hangs in balance as community weighs options

Tempers flared at the Nov. 15 meeting

Emotions ran high as the 70 Mile Volunteer Fire Department presented its new fee-for-service model to the community Wednesday (Nov. 15).

Around 50 residents of the 70 Mile House area attended an information meeting at the 70 Mile Community Hall. There, they were presented with two choices: either buy in to a plan to pay at least $400 a year to fund the fire department or allow the fire department to be dissolved entirely. Dennis Huber, chairperson of the 70 Mile House Firefighters Association, said that what the fire department needs most of all is community support.

“Participation is vital. Not just the financial contribution to the fire hall, but if you’re physically capable join the department. We need firefighters, if we can get two more certified we can then become a category four recognized fire hall which is an immediate 10 per cent saving on your house insurance,” Huber said, noting the hall currently has eight members.

The meeting began with a presentation by Pat McWilliams, on behalf of the fire department, as he laid out the current situation facing the community. For the last several years the 70 Mile VFD has been funded by the Thompson Nicola Regional District via taxation. McWilliams said the minimal cost to run the hall each year is $60,000 which allows them to cover expenses and put money aside for capital projects, such as purchasing new fire trucks.

However, last month, 70 Mile residents rejected a TNRD proposal to raise taxes to fund further operation of the fire hall. Once the current funding from the TNRD runs out, the fire department will either have to adopt a fee-for-service model or fold, donating their equipment to other local fire departments. If this happens and the community later wants to re-start the fire department, the projected cost will be $1.5 million to $2 million, McWilliams said.

“The 70 Mile Volunteer Fire Department is well equipped and trained for exterior attack and wildfire interface response. It’s dedicated to providing services as long as funding and volunteers are available,” McWilliams said. “If it fails to receive sufficient funds or volunteers, it’s going to cease to exist. The choice rests with this community.”

The fire department’s proposal is that every private property will pay $400 for fire protection. Utilities like the transfer station will pay $800 and businesses will pay $1,200. If a property owner opts out and a fire does occur on their property, the fire department will still respond to 911 calls to protect the properties of those who have paid their dues. They will also have an agreement for non-contracted service that a property owner who did not buy in could sign allowing them to fight the fire. McWilliams said this would cost $1,000 an hour per fire truck for a minimum of two hours, or up to $4,000.

Following the presentation Huber answered several questions from the community members. He then put forward a motion to adopt a new constitution based on the North Green Lake/Watch Lake Volunteer Department to allow them to begin collecting fees next year.

Some in attendance vocally opposed the 70 Mile VFD’s plans. Those who owned multiple properties expressed concern that they would have to pay $400 for each parcel while others brought up past disputes with the fire department. Heated words were exchanged between these individuals and members of the fire department in attendance with chief Jeff Warner asking why detractors “don’t come volunteer and show us how to do it?”

“We’ve got only eight volunteers right now. Why don’t we all just walk out so we don’t have to worry about it?” Warner said.

Following the argument several people in attendance stormed out of the building. In the aftermath, 70 Mile firefighter Greg McSweyn made a heartfelt plea to the community about the importance of the department. He acknowledged that the department has limits but said they still serve their community as best they can.

“The truth is we do the best we can and what we need right now is help. We want to help everybody here, we want to make this community work,” McSweyn said. “I will pay up because I believe it is important for this community (to have a fire department).”

70 Mile resident and association board member Christine Moeller also spoke in favour of the department. If the department folds she said everyone’s insurance will go up by potentially thousands of dollars.

“Our insurance on our house is $1,700 at this point. If we don’t have a fire department (my insurer told me) it could go as high as $7,000 a year. If you have a mortgage you have to have fire insurance, if you can’t you have to sell,” Moeller said.

Ultimately about 90 per cent of those in attendance voted to adopt the new constitution, though several voted against the plan.

Following the meeting, Huber said that he felt things went as well as could be expected. Based on the turnout he believes at least 50 per cent of the community, or 75 properties, will buy into the new system. Any support beyond 60 per cent they’ll have to work for. To raise $60,000 they’ll need 100 per cent participation or will have to increase the fees next year, after a public vote.

“Some people we knew were a no before we started. (We have to decide) how we’ll get forms out to the community either by Canada Post or email. Whether they’re opting in or opting out it still has to be on paper,” Huber said.

Fees will be due by April. 1 2024, Huber said, with the department collecting funds throughout March. He encourages anyone unable to attend this meeting to come to the fire department’s board meeting on Nov. 27 at the 70 Mile Volunteer Fire Department Hall at 7 p.m. Moeller, meanwhile, encourages 70 Mile residents old and new to get involved in the department.

“Come out to the meetings. You have a say in the community. Just come out and keep your temper in check,” Moeller said.