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ECM Special Report reveals  rural fire stations shut down for weeks, seriously under-staffed in peak fire season


By Miriam Raftery



October 10, 2013 (San Diego’s East County) – An East County Magazine special investigation raises some burning issues and reveals that lives are at risk in rural East County areas.

Since the Cedar Fire a decade ago, our County has promised to improve fire protection by consolidating rural fire agencies into a County Fire Authority. But our report exposes glaring deficiencies--and asks some critical questions:

  • Could a man who died at De Anza Resort in Jacumba Hot Springs have been saved if the two closest fire stations had not been closed, dramatically delaying emergency response time?
  • Why was Boulevard’s fire station shut down for 28 days in August, 30 days in September, and at least the first seven days in October – during peak fire season? 
  • Why were both Boulevard and Jacumba Hot Springs fire stations unmanned on September 30, when a man found unconscious died after medical help took an hour or more to arrive, according to eyewitness accounts?
  • Why haven’t funds promised by SDG&E  to mitigate dangers from new energy projects been spent in the communities most  at risk?
  • Why, even when stations were open, were  there only two-man crews which firefighting professionals say is inadequate for structure protection or rescues from a burning building?
  • How many other stations across East County may be similarly short-staffed or closed?

Our investigation raises grave concerns about public safety, but so far, officials have not provided any satisfactory answers.

“East County doesn’t know who in the fire establishment they can trust,”  Howard Cook, Chair of the Jacumba Sponsor Group wrote in an email to County officials, concerned residents and business leaders. 

Death at De Anza Resort

On September 30, an elderly man was found unconscious at a residence in DeAnza Resort. But both the Jacumba station and the Boulevard fire station on the area’s main highway were closed due to lack of staffing.  Cook revealed, “Eventually the station at White Star responded after an hour.”  The White Star station manned by CalFire, not the County, is located in the southwestern portion of Boulevard. 

A transcript of 911 calls obtained by ECM through a Public Records request shows that a woman who called 911 at 3:37 p.m.  to report finding the man unresponsive struggled to perform CPR until 3:53 p.m. when the report indicated she ceased due to “exhaustion.”   Sheriff's deputies didn't reach the scene until 4:02 p.m., per ther Sheriff.  Mercy 6 air ambulance did not arrive until around 4:30 p.m., Cal Fire records indicate.

Medics administered medication and got a weak pulse, working to stabilize the patient for over half an hour a witness reports. The patient was air lifted to a hospital, where he died around 9:30 p.m., Cook told ECM.

Fire station logs show public safety at risk

ECM has obtained station log records from the Jacumba and Boulevard Fire stations.  The log reveals that the Boulevard station has been closed almost every day for the past three months:  30 days in Sesptember, 28 days in August, and 25 days in July. It was also closed at least the first 7 days in October in the height of fire season.  Earlier in the year during winter and spring, closures ranged from 1 to 16 days per month. Boulevard's station is now under the County Fire Authority, according to Mark Ostrander, retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Ostrander; a Jacob staffer confirmed this.

Jacumba, which is even farther away from the White Star station than the Boulevard Fire station, had 6 dark days in September.  The rest of the year it had dark days from 0 to 4 days a month.  “Most recently, on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 6 and 7, while there was a Santa Ana wind event going on, neither firehouse was staffed,” Cheryl Diefenbach advised ECM. 

But that’s not the whole story.  Even when stations were open, Ken Daubach,  a  former firefighter who examined the log advised ECM, “For the majority of the time there were only two firefighters, which is not enough to respond to a structure fire." Daubach now chairs the Real East County Fire Safe Council. He confirmed that “for a structure fire it takes two in, two out. You need a total of four firefighters...This is a safety rule.”

Two firefighters can get water on the outside of a blaze, but per the Occupational Health Safety Administration (OSHA) can enter a structure only if life is threatened.  Otherwise they must wait for help to arrive -- and in East County, that can be a long wait.

Local stations are not responsible for fighting wildland fires (Cal Fire handles those).  But a fire that starts with a residence can quickly spread to brush, endangered other communities if not swiftly doused. So stations with dark endangers endangers people beyond the borders of these reural towns.

The area covered by these stations is vast. It includes major highways, the ECO substation and other major energy projects, and a railroad line that has recently reopened for firefighting. 

Future outlook could be worse

Astoundingly, the situation may soon get worse.

Fire Safe Council members and the public showed up  for their meeting September 30 for a meeting at the Jacumba fire station, which was dark.  After they finally got doors opened and met inside, Cook recalled, “Most of the speakers and leaders predicted that fire and EMT (emergency medical technician) protection coverage at Jacumba Hot Springs and Boulevard would get worse.  One of the fire leaders (a longtime former fireman from Campo) speaking  at the meeting wanted the entire populace to appear at every Supervisor meeting and each speak for two minutes about the East County fire protection situation until action was taken. He also claimed that the County Fire Authority was busy building a strong home office bureaucracy and sacrificing operational fire boots-on-the-ground readiness.”

Residents are worried about the potential for massive fires from new and expanded substations, noting that a substation fire in Escondido burned for days.  Tule Wind will place towering wind turbines in a remote brushy area.  Sunrise Powerlink, recently completed, has already been blamed for several small fires in East County and SDG&E lines caused 166 fires in a five year period, including the Witch, Rice and Guejito fires in 2007.

Cook further warned that if Tule Wind is built in McCain Valley or a fire should start at the expanded  ECO substation now under construction or the newl Boulevard substation, “we will have another huge San Diego wildfire, that is a certainty….One would think that San Diego County of all Counties would protect themselves after their recent catastrophic wild fire history.”

Chief's memo reveals staffing shortages at other rural stations

Both stations are listed on the Rural Fire Protection District webpage as under RFPD’s jurisdiction.  But a recent memorandum on station staffing sent by RFPD Chief David Nissan fails to list the Boulevard station at all.  That memorandum states that the Jacumba station is “regularly covered” by a paid stipend. 

Chief Nissan’s memorandum reveals other trouble spots, such as  stations in Dulzura and Dehesa, which are listed as “rarely covered” despite a stipend.  Potrero, where the 2007 Harris Fire began (photo, right), has this troubling notation: "stipend not currently covered or is there any plan to cover due to lack of county reserves." 

Nissan's memorandum lists seven “staffed” stations and seven “volunteer” stations but dark days have occurred at both, raising a question – are ANY of these stations adequately staffed with four-man crews 24 hours a day, seven days a week?  How many other communities are at risk? 

Lou Russo, Chair of the Rural Fire Protection District Board, voiced surprised to hear of the many closed days and said he would seek answers from Chief Nissan. ECM has left a phone message for Chief Nissan, which he has not returned.  We asked Cal-Fire spokesman Mike Mohler about the dark days at Boulevard and Jacumba Hot Springs.  Mohler said he was not aware of those and noted that Cal-Fire is responsible for wildland fires, not structure fires. But he promised to look into the matter. 

CFA and Cal Fire issues: residents fume over funding inequities

The County Fire Authority has been pushing the RFPD to dissolve and be taken over by the CFA – or lose all funding.  But some districts elsewhere that have done so have found that they wound up with dark days, too, after the CFA takeover.

Some districts have revolted against a County takeover.  Valley Center’s fire district opted to outsource its firefighting services to the San Pasqual Indian tribe at a lower cost than the County would have paid for Cal-Fire to handle operations under the CFA.  In Julian, residents raised funds to keep the volunteer  Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District independent of the County. 

Not all districts in unincorporated areas are suffering lack of protection. Leonard Villlareal, spokesperson for San Miguel Fire District, says that since San Miguel contracted with Cal-Fire to takeover fire protection, the District has had no dark days at any station, was able to reopen and fully staff its Dehesa station, and has had zero days when any station had less than a full crew, with the exception of one two-hour period when a firefighter had an emergency involving a family member. 

The inequity has some rural residents fuming.

“Since all County residents pay fire protection fees as part of their taxes, it is not fair that some areas are being short-changed,” Diefenbach said, noting that homeowners in the rural areas are also being forced to pay high fire insurance rates – if they can get insurance at all.  The areas both now have an ISO rating of 9, 10 being the worst—a reflection of inadequate fire protection.

Residents and rural planners: where did the money go that SDG&E pledged for fire safety?

In a letter sent September 30 to Superivsor Dianne Jacob, Cal Fire Thief Thomas Porter, Herman Reddick with the County Fire Authority, and Chief Nissan with the REFPD, Cook  sought  answers over the “very confused state of fire protection ion our communities.”   He attached a reporet by the Jacumba Hot Springs  Sponsor Group and asked pointed questions. Among them:

  • Why weren’t the promised funding, personnel, training and equipment promised in late 2012 and January 2013 by SDG&E in Memorandum of Understanding for Jacumba and Bouelvard included in the Fire Authority’s Master Plan?    (Funds were promised as part of the approval process for major energy projects of SDG&E’s.)
  • Why is the Boulevard station mostly currently unmanned and the Jacuumba station without enough personnel to be open 24/7, also without the required four fire personnel to fully fight structure fires in the community as well as at three new electrical facilities plus the revived railroad?
  • Why wasn’t the Jacumba Sponsor Group or the Real East County Fire Safe Council notified about assets promised in the MOUs  Cook asked pointedly, “Is it possible that the three involved Fire Chiefs intend to divert these promised fire protection assets to another locale?”

Cook raised concerns over enhanced fire danger posed by the new energy projects, coupled with the sharp decline in fire protection. He asked for a meeting , which has been set for November 18  with Supervisor Jacob and chiefs from Cal Fire, Rural Fire, and the County Fire Authority.

Supervisor Jacob's response

ECM contacted Supervisor Jacob’s office.  A staffer sent this response:

“While the County has taken big steps to beef up backcountry fire protection, it’s troubling that we have gaps in staffing at some facilities. My office is working with County Fire Authority officials to address this issue and I’ll be meeting with those same officials next week. Our goal is to always make sure the public doesn’t experience a gap in service. In many cases, like in Boulevard, there is also a Cal Fire station nearby that can respond to a fire call or medical emergency.”

She added that the County has invested over $250 million since 2003 to bolster fire protection including new stations, equipment, and better-trained firefighters.  “Maintaining adequate staffing has long been a baseline goal, so I want to make sure we’re delivering on that promise,” she said.

New station planned, but another may close

The County is reportedly planning to build a new fire station with living quarters for firefighters near the existing Bouelvard station, after which the White Star station could close down, Diefenbach told ECM.  But Diefenbach voiced concerned that this would not resolve concerns in Jacumba Hot Springs.  “Personally I believe that the County has a responsibility to provide a minimum of one paid professional firefighter and two reserves at the Jacumba station 24/7,” she said.

Boulevard bashed by industrial energy advocate

Donna Tisdale, Chair of Boulevard’s Planning Group, is also alarmed over the situation. 

“At our October 3rd meeting, the Boulevard Planning Group discussed the unconscionable lack of staffing and voted to address the major issues/concerns in our comment letter on the Community Wildfire Protection Plan,” she said, adding that the draft of that letter is not yet completed.

Tisdale also testified about the lack of staffing at her town’s fire station during  Supervisors’ September 25th hearing on a Renewable Energy Plan.  She voiced serious concerns over the County’s push to industrialize the backcountry and that  promises made for fire protection when ECO Substaion and the Boulevard Substation, plus 14 miles of new high-voltage power lines, are not being kept.

“I see this as a failure or a form of willful negligence by our fire agencies and County decision makers,” Tisdale told ECM.  “Massive construction projects are currently underway east of Jacumba, in Boulevard, Jewel Valley and in between—without adequate fire services.”

Backers of those projects have treated residents and rural planners with outright disdain.  John Gibson, representing Hamann Companies which owns land slated for industrial energy development in McCain Valley, made comments to Supervisors in his September 30th testimony that Tisdale calls “outrageous and slanderous.”

Specifically, Gibson (photo, left) denigrated the Boulevard Planning Group as “dysfunctional” and complained of the “inbred nature of replacement of planning group members,” then asked for security at meetings “where liquor is being circulated in brown bags” and where energy developers  are “lobbied to death, heckled, and if a project gets through, they are sued.” 

Tisdale’s well-researched presentations have fallen largely on deaf ears, such as information that the ECO substation expansion will bring over a half-million gallons of flammable transformer oil to the site.

A fiery issue

Tisdale joins Cook’s demand for an explanation as to where the money went from SDG&E fire mitigation funds for the major energy projects “that were supposed to benefit the most impacted fire prone neighborohoods—instead of going to ther communities located miles away from those impacts.”

She is concerned, too, over cumulative impacts from the overwhelming magnitude and scale of projects such as the recently approved Tule Wind project, which would erect over a hundred wind turbines each 500 feet tall or so – and each with 200 to 1,000 gallons of flammable lubricating oil.

Retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Ostrander has warned Supervisors repeatedly that it’s impossible to fight a fire at a wind facility on the ground, since whirling blades hurling off burning debris endanger firefighters.  Air drops are ineffective above 300 feet, so since towers are 500 feet, firefighters would have to stand helplessly and wait until the fires burn out of the wind facility – by which time it could be an inferno threatening the county as the2003 and 2007 firestorms have previously done, he warned.

Impacts of station closure

If the White Star station is shut down after Boulevard’s new station is ultimately built, Tisdale said it will mean longer response times to her part of town, Tierra Del Sol, which includes Soitec’s planned 420 acre solar site. 

“Tierra Del Sol Solar project is located on a single access road—with one way in and one way out,” Tisdale observed.  That project site just missed being burned in the Shockey Fire.” (photo, right)

The Shockey Fire raged out of control last summer despite the fact that wind speeds were low and no other fires were burning elsewhere in the county.  It started in Tierra del Sol, killed an elderly resident, burned 11 homes and charred nearly 2,500 acres. 

More horror stories

The recent death at De Anza isn’t the only recent medical crisis resulting from a station closure.  

Tammy Daubach told ECM of finding a family with a child suffering seizures in front of a closed fire station at Boulevard.  “It took ten minutes for a unit to arrive from White Star.  I don’t know what happened,” after the child was transported, she added. 

Numerous individuals  have shared stories with ECM indicated it has been hard to keep volunteers and reservists on duty in these rural areas.   Tammy Daubach recalled a bloody accident involving a semi truck collision that resulted in new reserve firefighters quitting the next day. 

Fire tax furor

Rural residents are also chafing over the new state fire tax that they are now paying – and want to know why they’re not getting better service for their money.  “Take this dumb tax they are making us pay and put it toward training and manning our fire stations,” Daubach urged.

County's troubling history of failed fire protection

Back in 1978, after the devastating Laguna Fire, San Diego County got out of the firefighting business.  Volunteer fire departments sprang up in the backcountry.

But after the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 firestorms (photo, left), critics railed against the County for its failure to have a County Fire Department to coordinate  firefighting efforts. So San Diego County began moving toward creating a County Fire Authority.

In 2008, a County Grand Jury report blasted the County’s continued lack of progress in creating what it called a "historically and currently failing" system to "provide the resources necessary to protect residents and visitors during significant firestorms."

The Grand Jury found that  San Diego County spent only $8.5 million annually on fire protection as opposed to Orange County which spents $260 million and Los Angeles County that spents $860 million. According to 2007 State of California estimates, San Diego County had over 3 million people and covers 4,200 square miles. For comparison purposes Los Angeles County had approximately 10 million people—three times the population--and covered 4,060 square miles," stated the Grand Jury Report on May 29, 2008.

According to County records, the 2003 Cedar Fire burned 376,237 acres, destroyed 3,241 structures and killed 15 San Diego County residents, including one firefighter. Four years later, the  2007 Witch Creek/Guejito fire burned 368,340 acres, destroyed 2,653 structures, caused 23 citizen injuries and 89 firefighter injuries, and ultimately killed 10 San Diego residents.

The County, to this day, has refused to add fire protection into the county charter. Despite strides made to improve some fire protection aspects, such as investing in improved communications and air power, rural residents who lack assurances that a firetruck or paramedic will arrive in time when their house is on fire or a loved one has suffered a medical emergency have ample cause to be alarmed, not placated, to this day.

The intent was likely well-intentioned. But the devil is always in the details--and those details show a continuing pattern of neglecting public safety in rural areas.

Ostrander, who lives in Jacumba, believes it isn’t a question of if, but when, the next firestorm will strike. 

He  has repeatedly warned Supervisors about the lack of essential fire services and has criticized decision-makers reliance on existing, under-funded fire departments when they approved major new energy projects, each a potential source of ignition. 

Now, concerned citizens across rural  East County are fired up over the county’s failure to allocate resources--and they're joining Ostrander's S.O.S. call for adequate protection ofn their communities.

In an e-mail to ECM,  the former Cal Fire Battalion Chief for our region concluded, “I am glad finally people are getting in an uproar.”

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Good Job

After screaming for over a year I am glad to see other members in the "real" east county communities standing up. Looks like you covered it all but, I still predict that until 100 or more descend on every BOS meeting NOTHING WILL CHANGE.  I just love the new speech out of Supervisor Jacobs office "“While the County has taken big steps to beef up backcountry fire protection, it’s troubling that we have gaps in staffing at some facilities. My office is working with County Fire Authority officials to address this issue and I’ll be meeting with those same officials next week. Our goal is to always make sure the public doesn’t experience a gap in service..."  In reality her office has been aware of this staffing problem for at least a year. The San Diego County Fire Authority has been a failure by any measure. Time to shut them down and use the money to hire some firefighters!