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RICHMOND, MINN. - Ron Terhaar's house is only a mile from a new million-dollar fire department. The new million-dollar fire department is only blocks from the fire hall run by the city of Richmond for more than a century. And both fire stations are only a 5-mile drive from the firehouse in nearby Cold Spring.
So when Terhaar, a retired pipefitter, spotted smoke billowing from his backyard workshop Jan. 13 and raced outside, he expected a quick response and a swift firefight.
An hour later, his shop was in ruins.
"It's like a bad dream," Terhaar said recently as he inspected the charred remains of the $200,000 building he calls his "home away from home."
The failed firefight not only cost Terhaar his beloved workshop, but it fanned the flames of a long and bitter backyard dispute involving money, egos and fire protection in this scenic lakes community 80 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
It also has raised questions as to whether the inexperienced Chain of Lakes Fire and Rescue Department, which represents five rural townships and opened for business Dec. 30, was prepared to respond to Terhaar's call, and others to come.
"We're scared out here," Terhaar said. "You brag that you're educated enough to come on line and fight these fires. ... But you still need the experience."
Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong that Friday the 13th.
The crew's only experienced firefighter, Chief Jerry Vossen, was 90 miles away when the call came in and wouldn't get to the scene until much too late.
When firefighters got to Terhaar's place, they put the drop tank -- the portable tank used to hold water hauled to the fire scene -- too close to the burning building, Terhaar said.
Minutes later, the crew lost water when its pump locked up.
In a decision that has since sparked much criticism, assistant chief Dean Holthaus called Cold Spring for help, even though Richmond was closer.
"Why would you call Cold Spring five miles away when you have a department sitting one mile away which also has a hydrant four blocks from the fire?" said Richmond Mayor Jim Hemmesch, a member of the city's volunteer fire crew. "It's politics."
Holthaus says he did the best he could under the circumstances. "I didn't feel like I had the time to weigh options," he said, adding that accusations that he deliberately snubbed Richmond are "a joke."
"I did what was at the tip of my tongue," he said. "I did what I thought was best."
Nevertheless, the fallout of the fire has stirred emotions in and around Richmond for weeks.
A Jan. 24 editorial in the Cold Spring Record said, "There was too much that went wrong with this call."
Last week, Dan Holthaus, Dean's father and a local township chairman who helped push for a new fire hall, wrote back saying "it is disgusting to use a personal tragedy to try and humiliate our new firefighters."
Hard feelings on the fire coverage issue go back at least several years, when Richmond introduced a formula for funding the fire department it believed was more equitable. When township leaders balked, the city backed off, but only for a year. By the time a new billing formula -- based on service calls, property values and population -- was imposed, the relationship between city and township leaders had become strained.
The dispute got so nasty that, ultimately, the two sides met in mediation. When talks broke down, township leaders pushed ahead with plans for a new fire hall, despite objections from dozens of residents who thought it too expensive. Construction on the fire house, just outside Richmond city limits, was largely finished last summer. By fall, 20 volunteer firefighters had signed up for training.
In recent months, the department has secured mutual aid agreements with Richmond and several neighboring departments. In the seven weeks it's been on line, it has responded to 10 medical calls and five fire calls, including two false alarms, Vossen said.
Still, Vossen, who admits the Jan. 13 call for backup should have been placed sooner, said he knows people will scrutinize his crew for months.
"When do you figure you've got enough experience that people will quit watching you?" he said.
Jack Stang, a township resident and board supervisor who opposed the new fire hall, said many of his neighbors applaud the volunteer efforts but worry about response times and the lack of experience for a relatively untested crew, some of whom live or work as far away as 10 minutes from the fire hall.
"The people are scared," he said. "And they are just concerned about who's going to protect them if their house burns down or they have a heart attack or a car accident."
Some also wonder whether there are enough volunteers in the area to sustain three departments. Still others worry about cost. In 2011, the operating budget for the Richmond Fire Department, which included the townships, was $118,000, said Martin Bode, the city administrator. The city's proposed 2012 fire budget is $98,000, Bode said. The proposed budget for the Chain of Lakes fire district is nearly that, on top of the debt on a fire hall, trucks, utilities and training estimated at more than $1 million, said Larry Lahr, the fire district's administrator.
"This is going to cost us an arm and a leg," Terhaar said. "It doesn't make sense."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425