An idea whose time has come

Friday, January 31, 2014

The news this week that the Monett Rural Fire Association had filed to seek a fire district came as good news indeed.

Not that we've all wanted to see local farmers paying through the nose when they could have paid $70 in dues. Lord knows the Monett Rural board adamantly hung on to its dues system long enough to keep the service affordable to its patrons.

But times change. Maybe if more than half of the people within Monett Rural's service area had supported the organization better, the need for funds would have been less critical.

More importantly, though, the shift to a district establishes a legal border. It's leftovers now. The leadership's reluctance to adjust to changing times resulted in losses of territory. It wasn't due to a lack of warning. When the Aurora Rural Fire Association first tried for a district in 2001 and threatened to take away half of Pleasant Ridge, the first shot was fired across the bow.

Waiting until Purdy secured part of Monett Rural's southern customer base in 2006 should have provided sufficient warning. It took three districts forming around Monett in 2013 before the new reality set in.

That goes double for the policy of fighting only fires on the property of members. And until there is a successful vote to go to a district, that policy remains on the books, onerous as it is.

We vividly remember the flurry of derogatory commentary in e-mails and Internet postings after the fire in February 2006 on Farm Road 1090, just past the city limits. Bilbado Rueda got burned fighting his own fire with a garden hose while the Rural firefighters stood by and watched. Whether or not Rueda knew about Monett Rural's membership policy was ultimately beside the point. Conditions were very dry and the firefighters could have easily justified dousing that blaze as a precaution for everyone else. But they didn't. The criticism they received was justified.

Paul Wimsatt, who was elected chairman of the Monett Rural board this week, remembers too. He recalled, "I got my butt chewed from all over world when happened."

Unfortunately it was more important at the time to justify the decision than it was to answer the criticism with change.

Sometimes tradition provides direction. Sometimes it's better to move on. This is one of those times.

With fire districts proliferating the southwest Missouri landscape today, voters need to also recognize the days of small dues went the way of $2-a-gallon gasoline. Fire protection has its price, and with the abundance of structure fires we've seen in the past few months, those who rely on volunteer firefighters have to take care of business, district or no district.

It's worth noting that the leadership of the fire association has largely turned over from 10 years ago. Many, but not all, of those adamantly committed to not fighting a fire on a non-member's property have stepped aside.

Wimsatt made a good point: some members threatened to not pay if anyone fought a fire on a non-members' land. At this point, it seems like a pity someone didn't take the high ground and put that threat to the test. It seems far more morally indefensible to let someone's house burn and stand there watching.

It's time for all of that to become ancient history. Voters in the Monett Rural territory can put an end to that for good on April 8. It's an idea whose time has come.