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North Whatcom fire officials straining to keep up

Lack of funding results in delays

North Whatcom Fire District Station 62 in Semiahmoo has been mostly inoperable since it opened in 1995.
North Whatcom Fire District Station 62 in Semiahmoo has been mostly inoperable since it opened in 1995. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Jonathan Tall News Intern

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue chief Jason Van der Veen is concerned about the future of his sprawling district that serves the less populated areas north of Bellingham.

“There are times when I shake my head like, ‘I don’t know how we pulled that one off, but we did,’” he said recently.

A district covering 156 square miles and serving 33,800 residents has only three fully-staffed fire stations.

Fire district officials say a lack of resources has contributed to delays in emergency transport times, underscoring the need for upgrades to keep pace with the population growth of northern Whatcom County.

“People think we’re more available than we are,” Van der Veen said. 

The district covers unincorporated Whatcom County north of Bellingham to the Canadian border and areas around Lynden. It also serves Blaine, Birch Bay, Semiahmoo, Custer, Delta, Northwood, Wiser Lake and Laurel, according to its website.

photo  North Whatcom Fire and Rescue says they lack resources and struggle to cover all the sprawling 156 square miles of north county, including Blaine and Semiahmoo. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

It is one of 13 districts in Whatcom County providing fire suppression, emergency medical services and rescue. In 2021, the agency responded to 5,613 calls for service — a 12.39% increase from 2020, it reported. 

Fire and rescue operations are primarily funded by property tax levies. The money is dedicated to a fixed operating budget, which is $6.6 million this year for North Whatcom Fire and Rescue. That money is earmarked for existing salaries and equipment, but not big-ticket apparatus such as fire trucks. 

“That barely puts tires on a fire truck.” — Bruce Ansell, commissioner

Van der Veen expects the total budget to be almost $10 million. The reason for a discrepancy is some revenue streams such as private contractors, federal grant programs and fees from billing Medicare for transport are not guaranteed.

Because they’re uncertain, those funds usually go toward one-time expenses like fuel, Van der Veen said.  

Fire districts are restricted to a 1% increase in their operating budget without voter approval. That would amount to $66,000 for a budget of $6.6 million.

“That barely puts tires on a fire truck,” commissioner Bruce Ansell said.

He added it’s difficult to time when to propose a rate hike because of competing tax levies sharing the ballot. Measures proposing rate hikes failed to pass in the August and November elections last year.

“We hadn’t asked for an increase in 12 years,” Ansell said. “I think the public forgot how fire districts are funded because the fire commissioners just made things work with what they had.”

In a chief’s report in December, Van der Veen wrote, “The public told us 5,613 times in 2021, or 15 times a day, that they need our service. We just need to figure out how to show the public that we need their help to fund it.”

“There are times when I shake my head like, ‘I don’t know how we pulled that one off, but we did.’” — Jason Van der Veen, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue chief

Station 62 in Semiahmoo encapsulates some of the district’s issues. It has remained mostly inoperative since it opened in 1995 by the Semiahmoo Resort Association.

Little changed when ownership was transferred to North Whatcom Fire and Rescue in 2005–2006. The station has never been fully staffed.

The nearby population of Semiahmoo has relied on stations in Birch Bay and Blaine that are 6 to 7 miles away.  

Van der Veen said handling more than one call at a time can create major problems.

“Concurrent calls just kill us,” he said. “We’re painted into a corner in the northwest part of the county — we can’t call for mutual aid to the north or the west” because of the border and the coast.

Another problem is the road system in the area, which results in long transport times. Trains occasionally block the roadway to Blaine, and the Birch Bay-Lynden Road was mostly closed for three months until reopening Feb. 18. 

Ansell said going from Birch Bay to the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center can take about an hour each way.

“In the meantime, calls are coming in and we don’t have the resources to respond to those,” he said. 

Last year, about 66% of the overall calls — 3,722 of them — involved emergency medical services, Whatcom County EMS manager Mike Hilley said. About one-third of those calls included transporting patients to a hospital for further treatment. 

Another stress point for North Whatcom Fire and Rescue is its interlocal agreement with Fire District 4, which covers rural parts of the northeast county. Servicing District 4 increases the units’ transport distance.

Commissioner Steve Cooley said District 4 won’t have the funds to pay for North Whatcom Fire and Rescue services by next year.

The situation has led officials to consider forming a Regional Fire Authority, a special purpose district that provides funding for fire and emergency medical services.

Voters would have to approve a tax measure in both districts to allocate the necessary funding. North Whatcom officials are not confident such a measure would pass considering recent failures at the ballot. 

“We’re so geographically spread out that it’s hard to get a sense of community there,” Ansell said. “Between us and District 4 it’s 182 square miles.”

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