TALENT — Jackson County requires fire-safety inspections when people build houses and other structures in rural fire-hazard areas; but while rural fire districts perform the checks, the county collects fees ranging from $124 to $225 for certification.
Jackson County Fire District No. 5's board of directors will examine the issue when it meets at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, at 5811 S. Pacific Highway, Talent.
Fire district inspectors look for compliance with Jackson County Land Development Ordinance 8.7 when they inspect new construction and remodels in fire-hazard zones. This includes establishment of a 100-foot fuel break in all directions from structures.
A primary fuel break within the first 50 feet must have grass less than 6 inches high, no combustible shrubs such as juniper, 15-foot spacing between tree trunks and no branches within 10 feet of the ground. Firewood piles and sheds must be at least 30 feet away from the structure.
A secondary zone extending another 50 feet must have grass trimmed to 12 inches and trees spaced and trimmed as in the primary zone. An additional 50-foot zone must be established when there is a slope of 20 percent or greater.
Wood roofs are not allowed, chimneys must have spark arresters and emergency-vehicle access must be provided.
Reductions of zone size may be requested when physical attributes, such as roads, preclude adherence to the county regulations.
More information can be found at www.co.jackson.or.us/page.asp?navid=1458
The board discussed the fees at its April 16 meeting, but took no action.
"We have had an understanding with the fire districts that we would do the paperwork and get that to them, and they would do the inspection," said county Development Services Director Kelly Madding.
Fees charged by the county reflect the administrative time spent by employees on the requests, said Madding, who will attend the Tuesday meeting.
Leaders from fire districts say the inspections allow them to connect with landowners and let them confirm that they will be able to get rigs in and out and operate safely in the event of a fire.
None of those contacted advocated setting their own fees or demanding payment from the county, although one indicated it would be nice to have some reimbursement.
District 5 Chief Dan Marshall said the program is working well, but the board wants to review it and see whether the district should charge for inspections.
"After talking with Kelly, the board may take a look at making a distinction between commercial and residential development and existing versus new construction," said Marshall.
"They do ask us to do it. We don't want to say no. It's our community, as well," said District 5 board Chairman Dan Gregory. "Unless we get desperate, we wouldn't implement something like that, but I can't speak for the whole board."
If districts didn't perform the service, the county would have to hire someone, which could raise the fees even more, said Gregory.
Jackson County Development Services processed 123 fuel-break reduction authorizations and 115 fire-safety inspections during 2012. An inspection is always performed when a break reduction is sought.
Fire-safety inspections cost $124. Fuel-break reduction authorizations add $101 to that cost. They are requested when a property owner is unable to comply with fire-protection requirements.
Remodels, new garages and greenhouses prompt many of the inspections, said Marshall. About 60 percent of his inspections include reduction requests.
District 5 performed 85 inspections last year, 88 in 2011 and 82 in 2010. Jackson County Fire District No. 3 performed 18 in 2012, Applegate Valley Fire District No. 9 does 30 to 40 annually, and about 10 were done by Evans Valley Fire District No. 6 last year.
"We do the lion's share of the work, but charging someone on top of that doesn't seem like the right thing to do," said Chief Brett Fillis of Applegate District 9. He said he thinks the county should give the district a little something for doing the work. Fewer than 25 percent of his inspections are requests for reductions in the break size, said Fillis.
"If the fuel-break requirements get done, the community gets safer," said Evans Valley Chief William Fuller.
"It does take a little bit of my time, but I definitely deliver messages and try to recruit new volunteers," said Fuller. "It gives me a chance to find out where these new houses go, whether we get money or not."
Fuller said he had been doing up to 20 per month through 2008, when more house-building was underway.
John Patterson, District 3 fire marshal, said his district has done 17 inspections so far this year. Of those, 10 have been for fuel-break reductions.
"Right now it's a service that we provide," said Patterson. "We would rather be in the loop and part of the approval process rather than adding any additional cost to this."
Creation of a billing system and its administration might be a waste of effort given the amount of money involved, said Patterson.
District 3 attempts to perform inspections as soon as it receives notice from the county. If inspectors can't give approval, they will hold the paperwork until a property owner makes corrections rather than send it back without approval, which would result in owners having to file a new request and pay fees again.
Jackson County did have its own inspector for about four years a decade ago. But that position was not refilled when federal Title III funding that helped support it was reduced, said Madding.
"Historically (the districts) have wanted to do these inspections. They are the ones who have to go out and physically use these driveways," said Madding.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.