By David Ross
Part I of several parts
On June 11, I became part of the story of the Chaparral Rebellion when my house on Palomar Mountain partially burned (photo, left).
In the 1980s a group of Western states fought federal intrusion in states rights called themselves the Sagebrush Rebellion. In San Diego County today a group of backcountry fire agencies are fighting to retain their autonomy from the two-headed coin that is the San Diego County Fire Authority and Cal Fire.
You might call this movement the Chaparral Rebellion.
Although some might call this a small “scandal,” others consider this to be a potential tragedy in the making since, in its insistence upon only allowing people who meet its physical requirements (which also just happen to be the exact same requirements for joining Cal Fire) to be members of volunteer departments the County Fire Authority is causing many volunteer departments to be undermanned. This is largely happening under the radar because this small “rebellion” in the backcountry does not rise to the level of a major issue for most news organizations, which are based in the big city. Yet critics say it is only a matter of time before this leads to the loss of one or more homes or lives in the backcountry.
Sometimes a reporter inadvertently becomes part of the story. Normally reporters don’t intend to or want to become part of the stories that they cover, however, in my case it happened quite by accident. On June 11 I became part of the story of the Chaparral Rebellion when my house on Palomar Mountain partially burned.
I had been working on research for a story on how the volunteer fire departments of the backcountry are resisting efforts by the County Fire Authority to run them, when I was personally thrust into the story. On the night of the fire, the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Dept. showed up and saved the house from total destruction, something that would not have been possible if they had been under the supervision of County Fire Authority, which, if history is any judge, would have only staffed the station with two firefighters, not enough to respond to a fire without reinforcements.
The outrage and emotions involved in the story are generally all one side of the issue. The CFA conducts its efforts to absorb or subjugate in a singularly dispassionate manner, and when called on its unbending attitude about such things as qualifications for volunteers, generally quotes an amorphous risk avoidance authority without providing the citations for why it has to be that way.
With the recent death of 19 firefighters in Arizona highlighting the fact, I don’t there is a single person in this part of the country that doesn’t admire and revere those men and women who put their lives on the line every time they climb aboard an engine, or take pick and shovel out onto the fire line. However, the question here is not whether we love and admire our firefighters. We do. The question is, who is charge of the firefighters that defend our own communities. Who decides where to post them and how many of them are assigned to a fire engine at a time?
County Fire Authority
The County Fire Authority was established by the San Diego Board of Supervisors in June 2008. The language establishing the CFA was innocuous enough that one reading it wouldn’t automatically assume that its purpose was to take over or absorb every independent fire agency in the Backcountry.
The CFA’s Web site (www.sdcounty.ca.gov/sdcfa/) is pretty bland in its description of its mission: “Coordinate, regionalize and improve fire protection and emergency response services provided by State, local career and local volunteer fire agencies in the unincorporated areas of the County.” In fact, further down in the description it would seem to argue against the idea that the CFA wants to take over management of the individual departments: “The intent of this statement is to continually improve regional leadership of the administrative functions and land use planning services related to fire and emergency medical services in the unincorporated county, while maintaining local operational control for fire and emergency medical response.” Italics are mine.
Yet earlier this year the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Dept. hired an attorney to help it in its negotiations of an annual contract with the CFA; in April the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Department came within a hairsbreadth of dissolving until an anonymous donor provided it with operating capital.
Then in June the Valley Center Fire Protection District, rather than buckle to County demands that it continue to pay the escalating fees of Cal Fire and become more under the operational command of the County Fire Authority, chose to contract with the San Pasqual Tribal Fire Dept. instead. At that time Valley Center’s board President Weaver Simonsen, responding to a CFA official, Kent Miller who claimed that the Authority was not trying to take over the department, snapped, “You talk about regionalization and yet you are not taking over? In the contract it was clear that you were dictating to us. I don’t have a problem with what you are doing, but don’t let this group think that regionalization is not taking over. That means you are going to start getting into our business.”
The CFA starting getting into the day-to-day workings of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department almost from the moment that it began functioning. Many of the longtime volunteers were unable to qualify to continue in that role, even when their jobs consisted of simply driving a water tender or manning the dispatch room, because they didn’t meet Cal Fire physical standards.
As July began the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District was asking the residents of the communities that make up the district, centered around Jamul, whether they wanted the district to dissolve and become part of the CFA or continue to maintain its independence.
Future installments in this series will look at what has happened with other fire districts and volunteer fire departments and how they have reacted to the CFA’s efforts to consolidate and regionalize the Country’s approach to fire fighting.
TO BE CONTINUED