None of us could have done what the fire department did and expect to just walk away.
But the city of LeClaire is defending the actions of its volunteer fire department, regardless how indefensible, when it damaged private property.
Rewind to the afternoon of Aug. 4:
The storm heading toward Scott County brought hope of rain after a hopelessly dry summer.
A day earlier, Friday, Joe Sundholm finished tearing down a barn at Don Sidlinger’s place in rural LeClaire. Co-owner of G&H Construction, of Pleasant Valley, Sundholm used the company excavator to dig giant holes in the ground, which he filled with debris from the demo.
He parked the excavator at the farm and left for the day.
Sidlinger saw the storm coming on Saturday. He shouldn’t have started the debris holes on fire because a burn ban was in effect. But he did, according to reports, and when the flames shot high into the air, the fire department was called.
Within six minutes, firefighters were on scene.
Chief Mark Slagel’s report tells what happened.
“... had Princeton FD dispatched for water supply, used E1 (Engine 1) deck gun for a knock down — had (Firefighter Ben) Pacha operate excavator that was on the property to pile dirt onto the fire to extinguish — canceled Princeton FD,” Slagel wrote.
Pacha’s report tells how the chief ordered the attack crew from Engine 1 to stop fighting the fire and get into the fire truck, because the wind, rain and lightning were getting so bad. Meanwhile, Pacha stayed on Sundholm’s excavator.
“I continued to place dirt onto hot spots of the fire until it was under control,” Pacha wrote. “Once the fire was out, I tracked the machine to its original position.”
This is about the time Sundholm arrived on the scene. He wasn’t a bit happy to see a stranger driving his $300,000-plus excavator in a downpour.
“I advised him to back off and also informed him under state code I had authority to use the equipment to extinguish the fire,” Chief Slagel wrote in his report. He declined comment when contacted Friday.
Iowa State Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds said he doesn’t know
what code Slagel was referring to and said he was familiar with details of the fire.
“While I was not on scene, I don’t know that the circumstances of a barn fire in a hole would rise to the level of commandeering a private vehicle,” he said. “It would have to be under the most egregious circumstances, involving certain loss of life. I would then think there would be a responsibility for the fire service to return it in the same condition it was in when they got it.”
LeClaire’s attorney, Jeff McDaniel, doesn’t agree, despite the fact the excavator required $3,954.14 in repairs and cost the owners several thousand more in down time.
The invoice from the repair company, Altorfer Inc., notes “excessive heat and water contamination” and contains a long list of oils, filters and seals that had to be replaced.
“Some of the hydraulic hoses had blisters on them and were seeping,” Sundholm said. “Before that job, I put a new air filter in the excavator. It was black after the fire. Pulling smoke through it is a bad thing.
“Those machines aren’t made for being in fires.”
But none of this matters, according to McDaniel. He said the city of LeClaire is not responsible for the damage. Chapter 670.4 states, in part, that a municipality is immune from liability in “a claim based upon or arising out of an act or omission in connection with an emergency response.”
The damage to Sundholm’s machine clearly occurred in connection with an emergency response. So, according to LeClaire’s attorney, the city is off the hook for the damages.
“We have turned it over to our insurance company,” City Administrator Ed Choate said Wednesday. “We’re still looking at what our position is. Our attorney has said we have immunity.”
Even the city’s attorney acknowledges the walk-away response is not likely to be well-received.
“Sometimes, the law doesn’t match up with what people think ought to happen,” McDaniel said. “It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s there. The law’s never perfect. The law’s not always fair.”
Maybe the attorney’s take on an arguably loose interpretation of state law would inspire some to reluctantly agree: The fire chief made a decision to use an expensive third-party vehicle, and it resulted in damage. But he was doing what he thought was best.
And it is McDaniel’s job, after all, to look out for LeClaire’s best interest.
But he kept talking.
“The unfortunate thing, I guess, is the equipment was left out there,” he said.
No. Not at all.
The unfortunate thing is that the fire was started in the first place. And, in fact, Sidlinger was ticketed for reckless use of fire.
But he didn’t create Sundholm’s problem. The excavator was in no danger of sustaining fire-related damage until Slagel ordered it into service. And that’s the truly unfortunate thing — that any arm of city government could damage private property to the tune of thousands of dollars and claim no responsibility, whatsoever.
It may explain the LeClaire Volunteer Fire Department’s motto: “Whatever it takes.”
Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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