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Rural fire district seeks property tax hike

Two open houses planned this weekend to discuss levy for equipment, staff

A red fire truck parked next to a burned down forest.
A Fire District 14 water tender responds to a wildfire in an undated photo. A property tax increase for District 14 will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. (Photo courtesy of Whatcom County Fire District 14)
By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

Fire District 14 in northeast Whatcom County will ask voters to approve a property tax increase on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The district, which offers fire protection and ambulance response from Sumas south to Mosquito Lake Road, past the Middle Fork Nooksack River, seeks a levy rate of $1.20 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The current levy is nearly 76 cents per $1,000.

The median price of a home in Sumas was $460,000 in September, according to Redfin, and the owner of a home assessed at that value would pay an additional $204 next year if the levy passes.

District 14 voters approved a $1.30 levy in 2015, when the measure passed with 57% of the vote. The rate decreased steadily since then, as property values increased while the overall amount of tax collected remained roughly the same.

“Our call volume has continued to increase, up 23% since 2015, the last time our levy was increased,” Assistant Fire Chief David Moe said in an August email to Cascadia Daily News.

The additional funding would be used to hire more firefighters and make needed equipment upgrades, Moe said. The newest fire engine in the district’s fleet is 19 years old.

But only 4% of calls in 2022 were to fires, according to a Fire District 14 webpage on the levy. Another 74% were emergency medical responses, and the district’s ambulances are aging too, the assistant chief said.

“Half our ambulance fleet (3 out of 6) are 24 years old, and they’re over $200,000 each new,” Moe said in the email.

“If the levy doesn’t pass, we’ll have to slow or cancel planned apparatus, equipment and station upgrades/replacements, as well as any increases in full-time personnel,” he added.

As climate change makes its presence felt, the risk of Western Washington wildfires is increasing, scientists say, and they expect more frequent fires west of the Cascades that burn less than 25,000 acres. Fire District 14 includes some of the areas at highest risk for wildfire, according to Whatcom County’s 2021 Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan.

District 14 responded to 1,400 calls in 2022, from stations in Kendall, Sumas and Welcome. The Kendall station is staffed around the clock. 

Kendall includes a pocket of residences and businesses in a heavily forested area in the Cascade foothills, about 25 miles northeast of Bellingham.

The district has three full-time firefighters, 65 volunteers, and 25 pieces of apparatus — including two water tankers and a wildland fire engine rebuilt in-house from surplus military vehicles donated to the district.

The district will hold two open houses Saturday, Oct. 14 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., when community members can learn more about the levy. The meetings will take place at the Sumas station, 143 Columbia St.; and the Kendall station, 7528 Kendall Road, Maple Falls.

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