ALBANY Katie Cole and her husband, Stephen, have lived in the hills between Lebanon and Sweet Home for 14 years, and they only recently discovered they're not inside a rural fire district.

The Coles are one of 350 to 400 private properties outside any fire district boundaries. Of those properties, 184 are inhabited, according to Linn County Assessor Mark Noakes.

County commissioners want to have a discussion with these property owners about annexing into the nearest fire district. This would be part of the county's process of creating a community wildfire protection plan.

The Coles live in a 1,600-square-foot log house on their property, which is about 40 acres of forestland off Johnson Creek Drive on Marks Ridge.

She only found out her property was outside any district when her election ballot in May did not include the Lebanon Rural Fire District's levy. When she called the district, she was told that she couldn't vote in the election.

"The Lebanon fire chief showed me on a map," she said. "We're very conscientious public citizens. We keep up on voting and taxes, so this took us by surprise."

County Commissioner Roger Nyquist said the properties outside fire districts aren't a problem until there's a fire. "Then it becomes a substantial problem," he said.

Nyquist wants to meet with the affected property owners this fall to discuss annexation with them. "I think we need to make an extra effort ... to contact these people and explain the situation," he said.

Neither the annexations nor the management plan are required, but the Oregon State Fire Marshal's office recommends these actions. In addition, the governor's office won't call firefighters from around the state to a major forest fire unless the affected county has a plan in place or is working on one.

The county also could receive money under the federal Healthy Forests Reforestation Act of 2003 for forest management and hazardous fuel reduction projects. Such projects might aim to reduce underbrush in forests that are at risk for a large fire.

According to an online handbook for creating these plans, a community wildfire plan should demonstrate collaboration between multiple agencies, a prioritized list of areas where hazardous fuels need to be reduced and measures for people to take to protect their own properties.

The Coles aren't waiting. They've already approached the board of commissioners, which will hold a public hearing next month to consider allowing them to go into the Sweet Home district. The board likely will approve the annexation following the hearing.

Officials at the Lebanon and Sweet Home fire districts said their crews would respond to a fire outside their boundaries, but they would send the property owner a bill afterward.

"Generally speaking, we don't look at the district lines before going," said Dan Woodson, assistant chief in Lebanon. He added it's not often that Lebanon firefighters will be called to a fire outside their boundaries.

Mike Beaver, fire chief in Sweet Home, agreed. "If we have a vehicle and apparatus available, we're going to respond," he said. "If it's way out of the district, that's another question. But if it's one tax lot just outside the boundaries, we're going to respond and do whatever we can for those people."

He added the number of properties outside the boundaries shrinks a little every year. "We pick up a handful every year, but it makes a difference," he said.

Properties outside a district boundary can get insurance as well. Brad Weekly, regional director of the Northwest Insurance Council, said most companies will write a policy but the premiums will likely be high.

The Coles do have insurance, but their broker didn't tell them that they were outside a fire district boundary. Weekly said that's not an insurance company's concern; the company is mainly focused on gathering information and determining the owner's rate. The company will explain the rate if the owner asks, he said.

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