The fire department survived the Dixie Fire, but will the insurance companies kill it?

Editor’s note: The Indian Valley Fire Department survived the Dixie Fire, but its existence is now threatened by insurance companies. This all-volunteer department is considering a 1,000% increase in its total bounty spending, exceeding its annual budget. Fire Chief Bob Orange — who is a retired state game warden, a reserve deputy for the sheriff’s office, a former Forest Service hotshot and now the volunteer fire chief — appealed enthusiast on the Plumas County Board of Supervisors. June 28. Here is the text of Chief Orange’s remarks:

Clear Creek Fire Chief John Hunter presents Greenville Fire Chief Bob Orange, right, with a check for $6,500 last September. He will need many more such checks to pay the new annual insurance premiums. Photo submitted

I am here to provide the status of insurance company responses to our Indian Valley Fire Department in light of the Dixie fire. I wouldn’t be here to talk to you if it wasn’t a very serious situation.

All of our insurance policies have recently been terminated. We were forced to look for new policies.

The auto policy for our engines has gone from $4,400 per year to $45,000. Liability insurance for volunteers increased from $1,600 to $22,000. For our building insurance, we had to resort to the last resort of the California Fair Share plan. It went to $53,000. Workers’ compensation is $12,000.

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Conclusion: our insurance premiums have increased by more than 1000%. The total cost of insurance premiums is now $132,000. The normal overall fire department budget is $150,000, although we have increased to $180,000 with grants and adjustments. Currently, insurance premiums account for 88% of firefighters’ budgets.

I want to explain car insurance a little more. We only have two complete engines needed – an OES loan engine and a salvage rig which we purchased 18 years ago on a 20 year loan. I want to further explain that we haven’t made any claims on the fire fleet since I’ve been there. No claims during the Dixie Fire, but auto insurance increased 10x.

We are currently designing the new fire station that will be built in Greenville. This will be a joint facility incorporating the Greenville Sheriff’s Substation (which was lost in the fire) as well as the quarters of the Plumas District Hospital Ambulance Team (they have were also lost in the fire). The ambulance would have an engine compartment to work on, and the facility would also include a kitchen and living quarters for them. The IVCSD (Indian Valley Community Services District) owns 5 acres of land just outside of Greenville on Highway 89. This is where our temporary station is now located. The plan is to have law enforcement, fire and medical services in one place. We thought it would be better for the community and easy access for the public. We have contracted with NST Engineering of Susanville who are designing the plans and master plan as I speak. This must be done as soon as possible as OES will stop paying for the temporary fire station that has been set up in Greenville. The contract and OES payments end on September 30. The IVFD is then responsible for the $60,000 paid per month for buildings and generators on site.

We have estimated the likely insurance rate for this new fire/medical/law enforcement building in light of what they are now charging us for our three remaining stations. I think it’s around $75,000 a year, maybe more. Thus, projected insurance costs are now $207,000 per year against a fire department budget of $150,000 to $180,000.

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This fire department is 100% voluntary; no one gets paid, including myself, although former chiefs received a salary. I preferred to have the chief’s salary to return to the fire department to purchase much needed personal protective clothing, equipment and communications equipment which was lost in the fire.

No money goes to salaries, which shows you that this is a very frugal department and, what was relatively inexpensive, to run. We currently have fire stations in Taylorsville, North Arm and Genesee. One might suggest that we close some of our stations to save costs. Stations are located where they are for a reason that many people don’t know. On a normal insurance policy application, they want to know the distance to the nearest fire station. If you are within 5 miles of a station, you get a reduced insurance premium. Our stations are located approximately 10 miles apart so residents benefit from a nearby fire station to reduce their insurance premium. If we close a station, residents will automatically move to a higher category.

The IVFD now has good operational engines allowing us to get rid of the ancient platforms. Truckee Meadows Fire (Washoe County) donated a beautiful Type I 4X4 engine; San Ramon Valley in the Bay Area donated an immaculate Type I engine as well as a rescue support platform; the City of Redlands donated an immaculate Type 3 engine; and Central Calaveras Fire also donated a 4WD Wildland Type 3 motor that we just had repainted and is waiting to be picked up in Oroville.

So our main operating budget issue is not device replacement, salaries, or volunteer staff. We lost half of our membership to the Dixie fire due to the loss of volunteer homes and the need to find jobs elsewhere. But we’ve also gained new members over the past two months, so we’ve returned to our previous numbers. The future looked really good for the IVFD – I ordered all new wilderness protection equipment, portable radios, pagers and mobile radios. One of the biggest issues we had during the Dixie Fire was being able to communicate with many of the out-of-county rigs that were here. We didn’t have the tactical frequencies that the response teams were operating on in our fire zone, so we weren’t able to communicate. We ordered portable and mobile radios to solve this problem. A prominent new fire station in Greenville was going to be a huge visible benefit to the community.

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Now, if we build the station, we will automatically go over budget and run out of money to operate. Insurance premiums will be higher than our budget. As soon as a new station is built, you have to close up shop. We must have liability insurance to operate.

With our current situation of insurance premiums at 88% of our income – after paying for fuel, propane for engine room heaters and electricity – there are no more funds. We will have nothing left for the infrastructure to support the volunteer firefighters and the apparatus. We will not be able to sustain our long-term operations after our reserves are depleted.

Following the closure of the fire department, I predict that all homes and businesses in our district will have their current insurance policies voided and will have to go to the California Fair Share Plan last resort; if they don’t already have it. My house was canceled by Nationwide Insurance three years ago and I had to go through the Fair Share Plan. Prices have tripled. I believe this will happen with the remaining houses. Traditionally, the IFVD receives around 450 calls per year. We also respond to vehicle accidents on Highway 89 in this area.

Insurance companies put a purely volunteer fire department out of business. By doing so, they will force homeowners and businesses to lose their insurance, which will lead to higher rates. They line their own nest. I have spoken to other fire departments outside of this county. IVFD is singled out with much higher rates and is the hardest hit. Other county fire departments are also seeing higher insurance premiums. I believe Meadow Valley fire insurance went from $4,000 to $17,000.

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The Dixie Fire came through and hit us hard, very hard and hurt us. But the IVFD survived and firefighters are recovering. In fact, reconstruction is a more precise term. But now, nearly a year later after the firestorm, the insurance companies have decided to go back and do what Dixie couldn’t – destroy the fire department. They literally murder Indian Valley Fire and put us in a coffin.

It is sadly ironic that the company most directly responsible for reducing insurance losses and premiums is being targeted. Eliminated. You would think they could create some variance and try to help. The old adage of “cutting off your nose to spite your face” certainly applies here.

I really, really hope the media can pick this up and educate people on all levels of our situation. I believe it is a precursor for all other fire departments in this county and other counties. This issue needs to be bred to get a fix. You have to do something — I don’t know what — but something. I would appreciate any insight or help the Board has.

(The fire department is working with its insurance broker Flanigan-Leavitt to find options.)

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Kristan F. Talley