After 2003 Cedar fire, San Diego County pushes regional fire department

Away with the volunteers

The history of wildfires in San Diego’s backcountry has yielded a vigorous volunteer firefighting subculture. Its foundations are self-reliance, strong community involvement, ingenuity, independence, and thrift. Today, those who embody the tradition feel threatened. They perceive the enemy to be the new San Diego County Fire Authority.

A plan to consolidate fire departments, both professional and volunteer, has been the pet project of county supervisor Dianne Jacob since the mid-1990s. But after the 2003 Cedar fire, according to the Los Angeles Times on October 31, 2003, Jacob conceded that “even with [consolidation], there is a dark cloud over all of us called lack of adequate resources.”

On May 29, 2008, the County Grand Jury pinned the blame for wildfire damage on too much trust in backcountry volunteer fire departments. The report suggested that people were acting as if it was still “the ‘Old West,’ when people banded together and formed groups to protect themselves.” What is needed, according to the report, is what most large counties use, a regional firefighting agency.

So the County asked citizens to fund it. But at the polls last fall, voters narrowly defeated a $52-a-year parcel-tax initiative to consolidate all fire departments in the region. The plan had wider support than the outcome indicates, as a two-thirds vote was required for passage. In the wake of defeat and anticipation of more big wildfires, a familiar rant went up that San Diegans are too cheap to pay for government services.

But Jacob had Plan B ready to go, a $15.5 million agency with the power to coordinate firefighting efforts in San Diego’s backcountry. “County officials said the authority [could] be formed although voters rejected the tax,” according to a November 23, 2008 California Fire news release. The new agency has responsibility to watch over “about a third of the county,” more than 920,000 acres. Within that area, “The authority will cover about 50,000 people…now served by six volunteer agencies and Cal Fire.… The volunteer agencies will remain but will be better-funded and administered by a fire warden, a new position.”

“The fire authority is one of the first steps in the process of creating a countywide agency,” the news release continued. “Jacob said she hopes to expand the regional authority within the next two years to include other parts of the unincorporated county now served by rural fire districts. After that, urban areas served by fire departments would be included.”

The good news for the volunteer firefighters seemed to be the $95 to $110 per 24-hour shift they’re set to receive under the new plan. But as paid employees, they had to qualify for workers’ compensation. And that meant passing a physical exam, as well as background and credit check, conditions of the contract the County offered them. A number of volunteers are in their 70s and/or out of shape. So many resisted signing the contract, saying they were thinking over their decision until the last minute of an initial July 1 deadline the County gave them. But on June 24, the County told the volunteers they had until the next day to sign or lose the opportunity to fight future backcountry fires.

During the period of mid- to late June, the Ramona Sentinel and North County Times aired out volunteer firefighters’ grievances about having to take the physical exam. One fire chief stated that some volunteers feared an exam failure would mean they wouldn’t be able to qualify for health insurance in the future. The newspaper accounts focused mainly on the volunteer departments surrounding Ramona.

To get a different perspective, I speak with three volunteers from the Shelter Valley Volunteer Fire Department. Shelter Valley lies 16 miles east and downhill from Julian. All three of the volunteers concurred that the physical exam constitutes a serious issue for many firefighters who still have much to contribute. Fire operations chief Tony Mayors, who is 53, tells me he knows he can’t pass the exam due to his high blood pressure. But he has been a volunteer in Shelter Valley for 12 years and the operations chief for 5. He believes his experience of fighting fires in the area is still a valuable resource.

Mayors eventually did fail the physical, but, the County has not rejected him outright. Instead, he’s been placed on hold while officials try to figure out how he might be used. “I think I should still be able to go out on calls,” Mayors says. “Call it quality control or whatever you want, but I’ve been doing this so long I can correct less experienced firefighters’ mistakes when I see them. That’s why I became a chief. I know I can’t carry a hundred-pound fire hose up a steep hill. But I can hardly be useful in my own way if I’m not allowed to go out on calls.”

I speak about the issue with Gig Conaughton, a spokesman for the County’s Department of Planning and Land Use, the administrative home for the new fire authority. Conaughton tells me the County cannot even allow volunteers to perform field supervision if they can’t pass the physical. “Think about it,” he says. “Somebody who goes out on a call might suddenly face a dangerous situation where they’re needed to help. It wouldn’t be safe. We [do] have one to three administrative positions that experienced chiefs could be offered.”

Gerald Sanders is currently the administrative chief at the Shelter Valley department. He has worked as a local volunteer for 30 years. He is 78 years old. “I know I could pass the physical,” he tells me, “because I walk eight miles every other day.” But these days, he confines himself to the “technical issues and paperwork.”

For years, Sanders has written grants for the Shelter Valley department. He thinks the money he has brought in totals somewhere near $800,000. With some of it, the department bought several of its own trucks, including one brush clearer and a small fire engine, and converted a station wagon into a medical emergency response vehicle. The department also built the Shelter Valley fire station.

The County gave Shelter Valley another truck. But it’s a bulky gas guzzler, says Sanders, and his colleagues agree. “The ladder is so high on the truck,” says Tony Mayors, “that you’d have to be seven feet tall to pull it out.”

Does the County prefer, I ask, that you use that truck?

“Yes, it’s got their name real big on the door,” says Mayors, laughing. “Our trucks have a small Shelter Valley logo.”

What would have happened if the volunteer departments did not sign the county contracts? “They would have taken our equipment and buildings,” Gerald Sanders tells me, “and replaced our volunteers with Cal Fire firefighters. Of course, the professionals would fight the fires as well as we have. But we have a record of having never missed a call out here and never having anyone get hurt. The Shelter Valley department covers a 582-square-mile area, so that’s not too bad. And one thing we do know better than outsiders is the terrain, all the little canyons. We’ve been to every one of them.

“But only 10 percent of our calls are fire related,” Sanders continues. “The rest are emergency rescues. For stopping fire, the biggest need in the backcountry is brush control around people’s properties. If the County wanted to help us, they would do more of that. But they don’t have the personnel to do it.”

I ask the County’s Gig Conaughton how brush management is handled. “The County has an ongoing relationship with Cal Fire regarding brush and weed control,” he writes me by email. “We loan budgeted equipment (trucks) to Cal Fire, which provides manpower to do inspections. Our County Code Enforcement follows up if abatement is called for.”

Ron Thornhill used to drive Shelter Valley’s fire engine. Not anymore. He decided not to take the physical even though he’s 50 and believes he would pass it. Thornhill is the angriest of the men I speak with. His biggest concern is the money the County is spending on its new fire authority.

“The volunteers were doing a very good job,” says Thornhill, “and doing it for nothing. I can’t tell you the number of small fires we stopped before they got going. If they reach the top of the hill and there’s a Santa Ana wind, you’re going to get the next Cedar fire. But that never happened on our watch.

“Now the County comes along and is going to spend $15 million and not do any better than we’ve been doing. And we did it free.

“I heard the County is renting a house for Cal Fire firefighters who will come in here from the outside and work out of our station. That’s new salaries they’ll pay and new benefits packages and new workmen’s comp payments they’ll make with taxpayer dollars. Today, I went down and turned in my equipment. No more firefighting for me.” Thornhill is not the only one. Of 12 original volunteers, 6 decided to take the physical. Among those 6, 2 passed to become County-approved firefighters.

I confirm with the County’s Conaughton that two Cal Fire firefighters, one an officer, will live in a rented building at Shelter Valley. He wants to emphasize, however, that the new guys will become members of the Shelter Valley community.

It’s a touchy point for operations chief Tony Mayors. “Yeah,” he says, “they say the County can generate money better than our barbecue fund-raisers. But we care about this community, and the community cares about us. I’m going to feel terrible if I have to let them down. And it won’t be the same not making the hamburgers.”

Meanwhile, Cal Fire firefighters have been rotating in and out of Shelter Valley, making it difficult for local volunteers to help them learn locations. And fiscal reality may be setting in. In talks with their new supervisors, chiefs Sanders and Mayors have learned that the County probably can’t afford to keep two Cal Fire firefighters permanently stationed in Shelter Valley. Since the local volunteer force has been “decimated,” in the words of Sanders, new volunteers will have to come from outside the area, and none will be officers. The Mount Laguna Volunteer Fire Department is already sending down new volunteers.

There may be hope that some of the lost Shelter Valley volunteers might still contribute. There has been a tiny bit of progress, Sanders tells me. “The County agreed to allow us mediation on points of dispute. But they’ve reserved the right to walk away from talks after ten days. Which means that if they don’t like something we want, they can wait ten days."

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