HELENA — The Lewis and Clark Fire Service Area and the West Valley Fire District voted to consolidate last month. The two agencies have been working hand in hand for years and believe the move will benefit residents and improve services.
“When it’s all over and done, the public is not going to see any difference because we’ve been running together for 18 plus years,” explained Lewis and Clark Fire Chief Wally Jester. “Everybody that trains between the two departments train on each other’s equipment. So no matter where you’re at, you go to a station, you get turned out and go on a call and take care of it.”
The most notable change for residents will be those living in the Lewis and Clark Fire Service area who, on average, will see their fees cut in about half. A small number of high-value properties look to see an increase. West Valley residents won’t see much of a change if any at all. Lewis and Clark Fire Service is under the county and has a flat rate for fees, while West Valley is an independent fire district that is funded through a mill levy based on property assessments.
West Valley Fire Chief Jerry Shepherd said the consolidation will help save money by reducing administrative costs.
“Part of it by putting this together, Wally and I have the same insurance company, but by making it one the price goes down. Insuring the exact same stuff under one policy is cheaper than doing it under two,” Shepherd explained.
West Valley is the busiest rural department in the county and has covered more than 700 calls annually in recent years. They cover around 57 square miles with approximately 20,000 people living in their coverage area.
When West Valley and Lewis and Clark consolidate, their coverage area will increase to over 900 square miles, but much of that is public land under the jurisdiction of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for wildfires.
The rural fire agencies in Lewis and Clark County also have mutual aid agreements to help when it’s needed. The fire chiefs noted they’ve always gotten help when they needed it, and returned the favor in kind when another agency needed support.
“If people in West Valley are worried that we’re going to get called off, it happens now,” noted Shepherd. “But we always have enough people around to take care of it. We have a fantastic mutual aid system in the valley that if we leave, the rural fire coordinator knows we’re leaving and they take care of us.”
“This county is outstanding,” echoed Jester. “Probably one of the leading ones in the state for mutual aid contracts between departments. Help one another when it comes and when we get there we deal with the problem and we all go home.”
The consolidation will mean Jester will step down as a Fire Chief and assume the role of a battalion chief at the Unionville station. West Valley’s board will assume the authority of the consolidated volunteer fire department.
A public meeting about the consolidation will be held Thursday, Oct. 21st, at 7:00 p.m. at West Valley Fire Station 1 on Forestvale Rd. off North Montana Ave.
People also have until Nov. 9 to submit a written protest if they object to the consolidation. To protest consolidation, submit written protest to Jessica Makus, 3402 Cooney Drive, Helena, MT 59602.