More Dogs on Main
November 12, 2010
In the more than twenty-five years I’ve lived in my house, it has not caught on fire. Not even once. That is a streak I’d like to maintain, so I do the normal things you do to keep your house from burning down. I get the chimney cleaned regularly, pay attention to where flammable things get stored, clear the vegetation around the outside, and so on. There have been a couple of fires in the neighborhood through the years, and the results have not been good.
The topic of house fires comes to mind this week because it is time for the annual demonstrations of deep-fried turkeys exploding and incinerating houses in seconds. Every year, as part of the Thanksgiving holiday tradition, we are treated to great video of people plunging frozen turkeys into vats of boiling oil. Generally speaking, to get a real explosion out of it, you have to forget that a 20-pound turkey will displace a couple of gallons of the oil in the pot, and spill it over the burner and the garage floor. The manufacturers of turkey fryers (who tend to be located safely offshore and beyond the reach of lawyers who advertise on daytime television) always give detailed instructions about how to measure the right amount of oil and how to actually test the level with harmless water and the actual turkey before firing things up.
Fire departments were in the news recently when firefighters in Tennessee sat in their trucks and watched a house burn to the ground because the owner had not paid his annual service fee to the county for fire protection. It sparked a discussion on whether fire-protection service should be optional at the property owner’s discretion, like cable television, or a mandatory (some say "socialized") cost in order to protect everybody from fire spreading, and to gain economies of scale.
When I combined exploding-turkey videos with the mundane process of paying property taxes this week, I got looking at what we pay for fire protection. If the turkey does explode, what does it cost to have somebody come and put the fire out? The guy in Tennessee lost his house over a $75 fee. How does that compare to what we pay here? In Summit County, we have three actual fire districts, and then a no-man’s land of "wildland fire" that isn’t in any of the districts, but has a special tax levy of its own.
With the efficient help of the County Auditor’s office staff, I was able to work up this comparison. On a hypothetical Summit County property with a taxable value of $250,000, the annual cost for fire protection ranged from a high of $267.50 in Park City to a low of $1.75 in the wildland areas. The South Summit fire district charges $75.75. The North Summit district is $138.75. Wasatch County would charge the same property $62.25.
The wildland area is supposed to be just that wildland. The idea was that open rangeland wouldn’t have houses where frozen turkeys would be pitched into boiling oil. But instead, there are hundreds of subdivision lots for cabins and primary residences scattered through the wildland area. One of the three fire districts will actually show up and hose down the ashes after a fire in one of these remote locations, but they are doing it to be nice, not because the property is within their district. It’s kind of ironic, and maybe dumb, that the homes with the highest risk and are most difficult and expensive to service actually pay the least for fire protection. A friend who lives in one of those areas says she pays more for mosquito abatement than for fire protection.
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Setting aside the wildland areas, the price disparity between Park City and South Summit is pretty dramatic. Does it really cost three-and-a-half times more to respond to the fire in a fully sprinkled condo in Park City than it does to respond to a house fire in Kamas? Would doubling the rate I pay for fire protection in Woodland materially increase the chances of salvaging anything if my house does catch on fire? Why does fire protection cost twice as much in Coalville as in Heber?
It’s pretty hard to compare a full-time professional fire department to a volunteer department. There aren’t enough calls in the South Summit area to justify paying a bunch of guys to play cards at the fire station all day, and without hydrants it wouldn’t make much difference anyway. A volunteer fire department probably couldn’t respond effectively to a fire in a high-rise hotel.
Whatever tax rate you pay, I’d strongly recommend that you do your turkey frying according to the instructions.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland, and has been writing this column for nearly 25 years.