Sep 29, 2019
by Vesta Copestakes
As our community arrives at the 2-year anniversary of the 2017 North Bay Fires on October 8th, we are reminded about our vulnerabilities, our struggles to recover, and our continued need for resiliency. Fire and emergency services have been elevated issues over the past two years. They deserve our attention, our respect, and our support.
As fire departments countywide are grappling with how to best serve their communities, the local Fire Protection District Boards of Directors in Graton, Gold Ridge and Occidental have decided to take matters into their own hands by placing funding measures on the ballot for a special election this November 5th.
Challenges facing our fire departments have been growing for decades as the demographics and economy of Sonoma County have changed. Once it was possible to rely on all-volunteer firefighters who worked and lived near their fire stations, and would drop whatever was happening in the moment to respond to the rare fire or major medical emergency.
In modern day Sonoma County, those same firefighters are working across the county or beyond, sometimes at two jobs to make ends meet. The ability for volunteers to live in the districts they serve has become a struggle, with housing costs soaring and the stock of affordable housing at crisis levels.
The threat of wildfire has changed the game and mentality of fire service delivery. Some grant funding has enabled sporadic advancement in community education and action. For example, Gold Ridge Fire performed 200 property inspections with a grant they received from the County of Sonoma to promote landscape fire-readiness and safety; Occidental Fire also inspected 200 properties this year, funded by grants. But these one-time monies don’t enable sustained efforts.
Local fire departments are pushingthe message, “Help us help you,” says Shepley Schroth-Cary, Gold Ridge Fire Chief. “There are a number of ways residents can work to create not only defensible space, but to prepare themselves, their families and their pets for evacuation.”
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” says Bill Bullard, Graton’s Volunteer Fire Chief.
When looking at fire-prone areas like Occidental and parts of Gold Ridge and Graton that have been fire-suppressed for 60 or more years, it’s just a matter of time and circimstamces. Community education and outreach are strong components of all three proposed ballot measures this November.
Communities can improve their chances of survival if they have the right resources available. While we cannot fully prevent a wildfire, we can mitigate the risk and damage if an event was to occur by having more strategically placed resources and preparedness.
“Staffed fire stations mean faster response times and faster on scene times that could make the difference in saving a life and/or keeping a fire small” according to Occidental Volunteer Fire Chief Ron Lunardi.
The West County fire departments have all practiced conservative budgeting by stretching dollars from pancake breakfasts, bake sales, community BBQs, and raffles in order to buy new gear and equipment to keep volunteers safe in the field and around the stations.
The reality is that there are so many calls coming from the aging population, influx of tourists, and generally expanded population that the old way simply isn’t cutting it, and frankly we are one call away from a volunteer not able to show up. And if that small brush fire isn’t acted on quickly, a large wildfire could very well be the result.
Measures C, E, and F are about supporting volunteers with staff that can respond to calls during the day, and for calls that don’t require more than one truck to respond, as less than 10% of calls for Graton Fire require a multi engine response.
Minor medical calls like a lift-assist or a medical aide only demand a single engine in response, one that isn’t necessary to pull a volunteer away in the middle of the workday to handle. The culture and staffing mindset is that the career firefighters are there to support the dedicated volunteers.
Ever-increasing call volume
Decreasing number of local volunteers
No guarantee that volunteers will be available at all
times, especially during the daytime
Response times are too high, it currently takes 4-5
minutes for volunteers to reach the station and then respond
Preparedness for wildfires and other disasters
Generally, most districts in Sonoma County are supported by parcel taxes between $200-$300/residential parcel. If Measures C, E, and F were to pass in November, their districts would each be collecting roughly the same tax rate when considering the small existing taxes Gold Ridge ($65) and Occidental ($80) are collecting; further enabling conversations about increased partnerships amongst equally healthy districts.
There are nuances between the three measures and the proposed funding. Below are details about the differences between each measure:
The District: Covers roughly 2,500 residents and 33 square miles - from Coleman Valley to Joy Road, out to Salmon Creek Falls to downtown Occidental, East along Occidental Road and Graton Road to Green Hill Road, and North along Harrison Grade Road.You can download the fire district map here: http://sonomalafco.org/Cities-and-Districts/Districts/
The Proposal: $200/residential parcel; $300 + 14 cents/square foot per commercial parcel; generates ~$250,000/year.
Desired Outcomes: Add 2 career firefighters to cover daytime staffing 7AM-5PM, M-F; add community education and property inspections for wildfire prevention and risk mitigation.
The District: Covers roughly 25,000 residents and 75 square miles - Southern and Western Sebastopol, West to Freestone, South to Stony Point Road on the Eastern border. This includes the communities of Twin Hills, Hessel, and Freestone. You can download the fire district map here: http://sonomalafco.org/Cities-and-Districts/Districts/
The Proposal: $200/residential parcel; $300 + 14 cents/square foot per commercial parcel; generates ~$120,000.00/year.
Desired Outcomes: Add 6 firefighter/paramedics to staff, bringing engine crews to 3 at all times at each station (Hessel and Twin Hills). Add community education and property inspection programs for wildfire prevention and risk mitigation.
The District: Covers roughly 8,800 residents and 26 square miles - from Northern Sebastopol to downtown Graton, Western Santa Rosa, and halfway to Occidental. You can download the fire district map here: http://sonomalafco.org/Cities-and-Districts/Districts/
The Proposal: $250/residential parcel; $300 + 14 cents per square foot per commercial parcel; generates ~$800,000.00/year.
Desired Outcomes: Add 6 career firefighters, to enable 2 firefighters at the stationhouse 24/7, 365 days per year.
Perhaps it’s the chance of the universe that has mail-in ballots starting to arrive in mail boxes for these voters on the 2nd anniversary of the Tubbs Fire, one of the deadliest nights in modern CA firefighting history. Or perhaps its just good community planning and resilience by our local leaders and volunteers, a way of saying, “Here’s a real tangible thing we can do to make ourselves a little safer, and a whole lot more ready.”
Either way, you have a historic opportunity to make a difference at the ballot box this fall, by supporting your local firefighters in keeping you safe.
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