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Pender County authorizes new fire district

A group of firefighters sit back and observe a prescribed fire in Carolina Beach State Park, Wednesday, March 1. They lit the fire as part of WTREX, a training for women in prescribed fire.
Kelly Kenoyer
A group of firefighters observe a prescribed fire in Carolina Beach State Park.

During a meeting on Monday, the Pender County Commission voted to create a new fire district. The Penderlea Volunteer Fire Department will absorb the Shiloh Columbia Fire Department, which closed down in October due to financial and employee misconduct.

After a months-long legal battle, the Shiloh Columbia fire station will soon reopen its doors.

On Monday night, the county commission voted unanimously to establish a new fire district in its place. The district will merge the Shiloh Columbia and Penderlea fire departments, with Penderlea's staff taking over the Shiloh Columbia station as new management. Fire marshal Amy Burton said the station will be operable "as soon as possible."

"I expect that to be this month, within the next two weeks or so," she said.

It has been eight months since Pender County shut down the Shiloh Columbia Volunteer Fire Department, which previously served the northern portion of the county. On October 4, 2023, the county filed a lawsuit against the department, citing numerous issues with the station's finances and services.

Pender County stated in the lawsuit that the department repeatedly failed to submit financial reports and had misused at minimum $25,000 of county funds. After further investigation, the county alleged several other violations of county and state policy, including employing minors, allowing employees to permanently live in the station, and paying employees in gift cards.

The county also said that the department struggled with safety issues. County officials said the station had delayed response times because staff failed to maintain full water tanks in their trucks. They also said the station did not give volunteers adequate protective equipment.

Since then, fire stations in Penderlea, Atkinson and Burgaw have been covering fire services for residents in the former Shiloh Columbia district.

"Fire coverage for that area has never ceased this entire time," Burton said at the meeting. "That was the main mission — this goal was to be able to assure and ensure that we are protecting our citizens and our property across the county on all levels."

On June 5, Pender County settled its suit with Shiloh Columbia's former board president Fred Simpson. Simpson agreed to cede all land, equipment and trucks associated with the former station to the county.

Upon its closure, the state fire marshal gave Shiloh Columbia a 7 out of 10 protection rating, with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst. By having Penderlea absorb Shiloh Columbia, Burton hopes to bring that number up to a 4.

"The average [insurance] savings to reduce from a seven to a four is $1,200 on the minimum per year per household," she said.

The new district will require no tax increase from residents.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.