Monday, May 27, 2024

Experienced fire manager looks to lead rural Whitefish fire area

Daily Inter Lake | March 6, 2024 12:00 AM

D.C. Haas traded in climbing into black bear dens for fighting fires when he moved to Montana several decades ago. 

Transferring to the University of Montana from Penn State, Haas had planned to continue studying biology but when he started volunteering as a firefighter he switched his major to forestry. 

“I used to trap black bears in Pennsylvania and I wanted to trap bears in Montana — that was very exciting, a lot of adrenaline,” he said. “But at the same time, I was volunteering with the fire department. It gave me that adrenaline fix, and it was exciting and I was making money and I basically went from wildlife to forestry and just loved it.”

It would begin a 30-plus year career in fire service that brought him to his latest position as the executive director of the Whitefish Fire Service Area. In the newly created position, Haas is beginning strategic planning for the area that includes roughly 86 square miles of rural land surrounding Whitefish. 

“I'm kind of the coach, mentor, a technician and a fire manager,” Haas said of his role. “I’m a planner based on my experience in fire. I try to bring all that together to see a need to try to fix that need or to fill that need, and work closely with our board members and take them on a strategic planning process too.”

Haas has served as a firefighter for the Missoula Rural Fire District and was a statewide fire prevention specialist and fire program manager for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. He spent 18 months working in fire service in Oregon before returning to Montana to be closer to friends and family, along with his wife’s family cabin on Seeley Lake. 

He served as assistant fire chief at the Kalispell Fire Department but following the Great Recession was laid off. He took some time working as a seasonal ranger in Glacier National Park and for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, before serving as the fire chief for Smith Valley Fire Department.

That’s when he decided to spend more time focusing on his two children. 

“I was away a lot living at the station and my kids really needed their dad so I did the retirement thing and ended up working for Kalispell School District driving bus,” he said. “In the summers I started working for a river raft company and that was just probably one of the best jobs ever. You’re working with people who were happy to be outside every day and there was a different set of logistical challenges, but it was fun.” 

Leading the Whitefish rural fire area was a way to return to working in fire management and planning. 

“Fire is a rewarding career,” he said. “You’re seeing people on their worst day and hope you’re making it better for them and trying to help them through that situation.” 

THE RURAL fire board members as volunteers have been struggling to executive long-term planning for the rural area in the way it needs to be accomplished, Board Chair Dave Kauffman said in explaining the need behind bringing on an executive director. 

“About two years ago it became obvious that we were frustrated because we couldn’t accomplish everything that we needed to be done,” Kauffman said. “We needed someone to do the research and look for opportunities like grants and develop a long-term plan.” 

Kauffman praised Haas as bringing the experience necessary to handle the unique challenges of a fire area that has a fire hall but relies on fire protection from the Whitefish Fire Department. 

“He can spend the time bringing together and making connections with people and interfacing with other departments to find ideas and also help us develop a plan moving forward because we are a little bit behind the curve right now,” he said. 

One of Haas’ immediate tasks, working alongside the board, is to talk with property owners in the district about the board’s plan to seek approval from Flathead County commissioners to increase the annual rate for fire service from $144 to $180. The area hasn’t seen a fee increase since 2015. 

“I think nobody wants to pay more than they have to, but I really think that people want to pay their fair share, but they will need to understand where their money is going,” Haas said. “So that's our job is to collect the data and get the facts out there to people.” 

The driver behind the fee increase is to keep up with operational costs and plan for a new contract that will come in 2026 with the Whitefish Fire Department. Haas expects the fee the rural area pays to increase, but how much isn’t known yet. 

It’s all part of planning for the future, Haas notes, and keeping homeowners informed about the process moving forward. The strategic planning process that Haas expects to lead the board through is expected to include discussions about what’s needed in terms of another fire station, new equipment and more firefighters, and the costs associated with that. 

“I'm looking forward to this strategic planning to, you know, let's write this plan and move forward with it,” Haas said. “And bring in the partners that we need and keep the community informed.”

Every fire department in the county is strapped particularly when playing catchup after spikes in growth the last few years and when an influx of visitors come in the summer, he noted. 

“Have you ever called 911?” he asked. “You expect a response when you call. You expect people to show up and help you. There are times when there aren’t enough resources in the Valley. We need to plan in the short term and long term to get more resources out there.”

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or