Navigation Top
AGO Logo Graphic
AGO Header Image
File a Complaint
Contact the AGO
AGO 1951 No. 027 - April 27, 1951
AGO Opinion Header Image
Smith Troy | 1941-1952 | Attorney General of Washington

FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICTS ‑- FIGHTING FIRES OUTSIDE THE DISTRICT.

A fire protection district has no legally enforceable claim against another county or against any person or agency responsible for starting or spreading of a fire where it voluntarily goes outside its own territorial limits to prevent such fire from spreading in the absence of any contract theretofore entered into.

                                                                  - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                   April 27, 1951

Honorable William A. Sullivan
Insurance Commissioner
State of Washington
Olympia, Washington                                                                                             Cite as:  AGO 51-53 No. 27

Dear Mr. Sullivan:

            On April 18, 1951, you asked the following questions:

            Has a fire protection district a legally enforceable claim against an adjoining but contiguous county where it renders service in fighting a fire outside its own limits and in such adjoining but contiguous county?

            Has a fire protection district an enforceable claim against an adjoining but contiguous county, or any other person, or agency, responsible for starting or spreading of such fire?

            The conclusions reached may be summarized as follows:

            A fire protection district has no legally enforceable claim against anyone when it goes outside its territorial limits and fights a fire in the absence of any contract for reimbursement.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Your exact inquiries read as follows:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            "Can a fire protection district make a reasonable charge for its services rendered in fighting fire in an adjoining but contiguous county whether or not such services are requested by the residents, etc., of such county but where there is imminent danger of the fire spreading and burning into the said district?

            "If so, can the charge be made against the adjoining but contiguous county and also the person or agency, state or federal, who is responsible for the starting or spreading of such fire?"

            Parenthetically, we would here impose that if the services of the fire protection district were actually requested by anyone before such services were rendered, that problems of a contractual nature might become involved.  We therefore respectfully ask to be excused from expressing any opinion as to the effect of any contract so made in the absence of any showing as to the terms of such contract.

            The Washington statutes relative to fire protection districts have been amended several times.  The powers of the district may be found in section 6, chapter 254, Laws of 1947 (sec. 5654-120, Rem. Supp. 1947; 52.08.030, RCW [[RCW 52.08.030]]).  While section 6 grants broad power to fire protection districts and specifically grants the power to enter into contracts with various municipalities such as counties, it would appear that all of such relations must be by "contract."

            The powers of counties may be found in sections 3924, et seq., Rem. Rev. Stat. (Title 36, RCW [[Title 36 RCW]]).  We cannot find anything in the powers granted which apparently would contemplate that a county as such would become liable for any fire fighting service to protect the property of the residents of such county and as distinguished from fire fighting rendered in actually protecting the property of the county as a separate and distinct municipality.  We understand that counties as such have no responsibility to protect the property of the residents of such county.  The courts have held that generally counties have only such powers as are conferred upon them by legislative enactment.  State v. Superior Court, 68 Wash. 660, 124 Pac. 127; State ex rel. Taylor v. Superior Court, 2 Wn. (2d) 575, 98 P. (2d) 985.  The same is true as to the powers of county commissioners.  SeeTaylor case,supra.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            You propound a question where the fire protection district goes outside its boundaries to fight a fire which might become (or, in the opinion of experts then, was) a hazard to the property within the fire protection district.  In other words, your question raises the inquiry of the right of the fire protection district to go outside its own boundaries when there is a fire spreading which may, unless stopped, endanger the property within the fire protection district.  We cannot believe that as a matter of law the fire protection district can have an enforceable claim against anyone where it voluntarily goes outside its own territorial limits to fight a fire.  This may seem like a harsh rule, but it must be remembered that fire protection districts are the product of statutes and are quasi-municipal corporations.  The general rule of law is that no municipal corporation has any powers unless they are specifically granted by statute or are necessarily implied from the powers granted.  While we know of no case which has applied this principle to fire protection districts, we can see no reason why the court should depart from such general rule in the case of fire protection districts.

            You also ask whether a charge can be made against the adjoining but contiguous county and also against the person or agency, state or Federal, who is responsible for starting or spreading such a fire.  We believe we have already answered your inquiry as to whether a charge can be made against a contiguous county to the effect that such charge cannot be made.  We doubt exceedingly that a charge can be made against a person or state agency who started the fire outside the district, if the fire protection district went outside its borders to fight such fire.  We know of no Federal law which authorizes a claim against any branch of the Federal government under the above circumstances, although it is possible that such a claim may be made under some of the numerous Federal laws or regulations.

            It might well be argued that a fire protection district, in going outside its territorial limits to fight a spreading fire which might spread into the territorial limits of such district, is, in so doing, simply protecting the property within its own territorial limits as by law it is supposed to do.

            We are not saying that a county could not recognize such a claim if it desired so to do.  Nor are we saying that an individual could not recognize such a claim if he desired so to do.  We know as a practical matter that in cases of conflagration that city fire departments frequently go outside their own proper limits to aid another city or to fight a fire.  To say that such things happen  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] is far different from saying that the city which is then suffering a conflagration can compel another city to send its fire department to its aid.  This last is comparable to the problem which you have presented to us.

            Under the present condition of the law in this state we believe that the fire protection district you mention is without enforceable remedy.

Very truly yours,

SMITH TROY
Attorney General

GEORGE DOWNER
Assistant Attorney General

Content Bottom Graphic
AGO Logo