By David Ross
A special joint investigation by East County Magazine and Valley Center Press into the county takeover of rural fire districts
PART II in a series
October 3, 2013 (San Diego's East County) -- Recently a volunteer fire chief in the Backcountry wrote this (pun intended) inflammatory conclusion about the level of preparedness at his rural department: “The _____ currently is at a dangerously low staffing level that is putting current firefighters, residents and visitors in danger.”
The name of the organization is left out (it is revealed later below), because it is a generic statement that might very easily apply to several communities in San Diego County’s rural unincorporated area.
Individuals and communities react to intimidation differently. Some buckle, seeking accommodation and offering appeasement, while others get their backs up and fight back even with no chance of winning.
Some choose to be inspired by Winston Churchill’s defiant, “Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense,” while others find solace in Rodney King’s lament “Why can’t we all just get along?”
This is a story of several Backcountry communities, including Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Rural Fire Protection District and its various communities, such as Jacumba and Harbison Canyon, that are choosing different paths in reaction to the San Diego County Fire Authority’s (CFA’s) efforts to Hoover up as many volunteer and rural fire departments as possible into one overarching organism for fighting fires with a combination of carrot and stick, emphasis on the stick.
A Reaction to Devastation
The Board of Supervisors created the CFA in 2008, in reaction to the devastation wrought by the multiple wildfires of 2007. For a while the CFA was a relatively quiescent entity, but within it a seed was growing. Within a few years it began to stretch its muscles over its 1.57 million acres of territory, which includes nine volunteer fire companies, with fire stations in Campo, De Luz, Intermountain, Mount Laguna, Palomar Mountain, Ranchita, San Pasqual, Shelter Valley and Sunshine Summit.
San Diego County currently has about 450 volunteer firefighters on the rolls.
The CFA was injected with steroids when the Board of Supervisors January 25, 2011 voted to create County Service Area No. 135 and tasked it with structural fire protection and emergency medical services in the unincorporated areas. Step I necessitated the dissolution of five County Service Areas: Mount Laguna, Palomar Mountain, Boulevard and San Pasqual—which had all operated volunteer fire departments— with CSA 135 taking their place. The volunteer departments were not themselves dissolved but continued to operate as non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations and to contract with the County as service providers within CSA 135.
Step II transferred $178,426 of property tax revenue plus $122,970 of annual voter-approved assessment revenue from the five dissolved CSA’s to CSA 135.
The goal of Step III (which is currently underway) is to dissolve the Pine Valley and San Diego Rural Fire Protection Districts and merge them into CSA 135.
According to the County “Fire Master Plan” updated in July of 2013, “The reorganization strengthened the command structure of the San Diego County Fire Authority and ensured long-term viability of fire protection services within those areas.”
Jacumba and Boulevard’s Dark Stations
Some contest that assertion, such as Howard W. Cook, chairman of the Jacumba Hot Springs Sponsor Group, who wrote September 30 in an opinion piece for East County Magazine that a recent Jacumba Hot Springs community meeting the same night found the Jacumba Hot Springs Fire station, “completely dark. Shut down as it has been frequently in the past month. Likewise, Boulevard Fire Station was also dark tonight as it has been for most of the past several months.” Yet environmental impact reports for several electrical projects by SDG&E for the area “promised 24/7 coverage.”
Both Boulevard and Jacumba are part of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District, which the County wants to persuade to dissolve itself and fold itself into CSA 135.
Twenty-four hour, seven-day coverage would also seem to be the mandate of the CFA. Supervisor Dianne Jacob claims that has been achieved. In a recent article in the San Diego Reader she was quoted as saying, “Consolidation has already helped provide around-the-clock fire protection in areas that previously had limited or no coverage.”
Cook’s sponsor group doesn’t think so. It recently generated a letter to the Supervisor Jacob, Thom Porter, Cal Fire Chief, David Nissan, rural chief and Herman Reddick, CFA that includes several pointed questions.
They wanted to know 1) Why wasn’t the promised funding, personnel, training and equipment promised in late 2012 and January 2013 by SDG&E in the two memoranda of understanding for Jacumba and Boulevard included in the CFA’s July 2013 Master Plan? 2) Did the CFA intend to divert those resources to other communities? 3) “Why is the Boulevard station mostly currently unmanned and the Jacumba Station without enough personnel to be open 24/7, also without the required four fire personnel to fully fight structure fires in our community as well as at our three new electrical facilities plus at the local revived operational railroad?”
Others criticize the CFA for wanting to abolish some volunteer fire departments. In the same Reader piece mentioned above, Nicio Aguilera of Julian is quoted as opposing the County’s “power grab,” and adds, “The County had approximately eighteen fire stations which are theoretically volunteer … Gradually, the County is gobbling them up in what they consider, I guess, to be a friendly way. They want to make them into a county fire department.”
Aquilera doesn’t represent a monolithic Julian point-of-view. Some Julian residents support folding the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District
into the CFA. This proposal was the subject of several heated board meetings in which directors split 2-2, though public testimony overwhelmingly opposed the takeover. This year that was only prevented from happening when an anonymous “angel” stepped forward and providing funding to keep the department going another twelve months.
Members of the Board of Supervisors will flatly deny that the purpose of the CFA is to absorb the volunteer departments. Although non-cooperation is not an option, as Supervisor Jacob, quoted in the Los Angeles Times made clear: “If you want the money, you've got to be part of the team.”
The party line is that the purpose of the CFA is to augment and make more efficient fire fighting in the Backcountry. But the effect seems to many to be empire-building.
The problem, as several critics see it, is not that the County is empire-building; the problem is that the empire is striking out when it comes to achieving its goals of providing adequate fire safety.
Remote Palomar Mountain
In the quote that began this article, the chief was writing about his volunteer fire department’s state of preparedness after it came under the supervision of the County Fire Authority. Before the department came under the CFA it had managed to field a full complement of volunteers, many of them local residents. On weekends, its most busy days, the department would often respond with full engine companies of four firefighters each. The four firefighters per engine is a national industry standard that most fire agencies strive to achieve and which PMVFD maintained for several years. Yet in the 2013 County Fire Authority Master Plan (Page 24), the document that is supposed to be the reference for running the county’s volunteer fire program, “a minimum engine staffing level of two (2) career firefighters,” appears to be an accepted norm.
The department in the report is the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, which has been one of the most vocal critics of the CFA. Its writer is George Lucia, who retired from that post in August, shortly after his board declined to support the conclusions of his analysis of the department’s readiness, entitled “Declaration of Deployment Analysis.”
Two years have passed since the CFA took over the PMVFD. Most volunteers from that time have been forced from the ranks through CFA’s insistence on what Lucia criticizes as its “one size fits all approach.” Most were attritioned by CFA’s requirements that volunteers be able to perform physically up to the standards of trained Cal Fire professionals. These days, according to Lucia’s report, the fire department is a shadow of its former self. “Merely putting a fire truck in a community and staffing it with two people without consideration for how they will be reinforced is misleading and inappropriate,” it states.
The situation is not unique to any one community of the Backcountry. Ever since the CFA began to oversee the rural fire districts, it is very common for often four or five fire stations on a given day to be completely unmanned. Some, such as the Jacumba Hot Springs Fire station in East County, as noted above, have been completely dark for the last month.
In some cases Cal Fire has taken a paternalistic, even condescending attitude towards volunteers. During July’s Chariot Fire that ravaged part of the Julian, Mount Laguna area, a volunteer company reportedly positioned itself on one side of the Sunrise Highway to protect the lodge at the Al Bahr Shrine Camp. However, according to some witnesses, the volunteers had not been activated by the CFA to fight the blaze, and so were ordered to stand down. Shortly thereafter they watched helplessly while the lodge blazed and then burned to the ground. Later the incident commander admitted that the order to stand down had been an error. Some of these same volunteers had been the only line of defense ten years before at the Cedar Fire—the largest wildfire in California history. Many had stayed on the fire line while their own houses burned in that year.
Palomar Goes Along
The above account won’t be found in any local news reports online, but it was repeated by a firefighter and several others present during the annual Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department board election over Labor Day. Whether true or not, it has found itself into urban legend—or rural legend if you will, which means it reflects the attitudes and feelings of many rural residents.
The chief’s analysis recommended taking relatively drastic steps towards basic changes that would allow it to, despite being an isolated community, “develop a deployment plan that has both an initial attack component and a concentration component so that an effective attack can be mounted on any structure that occurs in its area.”
About six weeks ago George Lucia, then chief of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, retired from his unpaid position. He continues to retain his paid position as fire marshal of the Valley Center Fire Protection District, the only non-volunteer department that has so far defied the CFA and maintained its independence by contracting with the San Pasqual Tribal Fire Department, rather the County-approved Cal Fire.
Palomar Mountain’s board, after initially striking a combative pose that was driven largely by a local population that wanted to maintain the mountain’s local autonomy, folded in June and agreed to the County Fire Authority’s terms for service for a year. The rationale of agreeing to the County’s terms was to give the community time to formulate a strategy for dealing with the County. A few weeks after that Chief Lucia presented his draft of his report, which the board declined to accept as written—and in fact took no action on.
Chief Lucia retired within two weeks. The PMVFD has still refused to accept or release Lucia’s analysis, which had been prepared by himself, his then second-in-command, Chief Cliff Kellogg and Ronny Coleman, hired by the district as a consultant.
Coleman is senior vice president with Emergency Services Consulting, Inc. (ESCi). He formerly served as the California state fire marshal and retired as chief deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). He is the author of 12 books on managing fire services.
When the annual fireboard elections were held over the Labor Day weekend, several residents challenged the fireboard as to why it had not released Lucia’s report. The report, replied several board members, represented Lucia’s opinions, rather than facts. Since they couldn’t back up the assertions of the 44-year fire veteran, they declined to release his report to the public.
Nevertheless the unofficial report is available (this reporter obtained a copy, which readers can download from this Web site).
Coleman bristles at the notion that the report merely represents Lucia’s opinions. “I contributed to every paragraph and page of that report,” he says. “Fact is, three people worked on it. I worked on it. Cliff Kellogg and Lucia worked on it. I do not believe anything in that document was inaccurate or misrepresents the reality of what is going on the mountain.”
“I would see that one irrefutable fact is that the department is a remote isolated department almost an hour away from the nearest fire station. Two person staffing does not meet the definition of contemporary fire protection.” Two national standards apply to fire departments: National Fire Protection Association Standard 1710 and NFPA Standard 1720. The latter applies to departments that are not part of suburban cities. “The document I worked on for Lucia is in compliance with 1720 and I dare anybody to tell me otherwise!” declares Coleman.
When Lucia presented his analysis to his board, he was personally placed in a position of knowing that his department was dangerously understaffed, something he had warned about for two years. That may have led to his retirement since if he had knowingly continued to head the department he might have been held personally liable at some future date. At any rate, Palomar’s board has chosen to “go along,” with the CFA way of doing things. At least for the time being.
San Diego Rural
By far the largest of the rural fire districts in area is San Diego Rural Fire Protection District, which includes the communities of Harbison Canyon, Dehesa, Deerhorn, Jacumba, Jamul, Otay, Lake Morena and Descanso, although their aggregate population is only 25,000. In recent months, directors of this far flung district have traveled to small public meetings in each of those communities to brief residents about the decision the board will eventually have to make: give in to the County’s insistence that the district abolish itself or defy the County and fight to remain a viable entity.
In August one such meeting was held in Harbison Canyon, a community at the end of a long and winding country road a surprisingly short distance from El Cajon for such a seemingly remote place. Motorists reaching a T-intersection where they turned left to go the Old Ironsides County Park, encountered a large hand-scrawled billboard sized sign that warned residents to attend the meeting to defend the sanctity of their independent fire department.
The passion the sign’s creator demonstrated was not reflected by the mild-mannered crowd that nearly filled the small Old Ironsides meeting room that evening. The dynamic of a community’s indecision was played out in the interplay between two people, one clearly an opponent of independence and the other very clearly in favor of it.
Seated at a table at the front of the room were representatives of the CFA, including CFA program manager Herman Reddick, Capt. Cal Hendrie, volunteer coordinator for the CFA and two San Diego Rural fire board members, Randall Terry and Lou Russo, the chairman.
As the presentation proceeded, most in the room seemed to accept the “inevitability” of the County forcing its position on the community because residents wouldn’t support taxing themselves more to pay for a fire district that could do the job. The weight of opinion seemed to be that some more prosperous neighborhoods, such as Jamul, might support that option, but that it would be unpopular in less well-heeled enclaves, such as Harbison Canyon.
One resident observed, “Doesn’t sound like we have a choice, does it?”
“We DO have a choice,” said Terry, who then explained how it wasn’t much of one. “If we say no to the County, we would be cut off. If we want to stay independent, you will be paying $450 extra [a year in property taxes] plus the $100 you are already paying, with an escalator clause. This is NOT our choice.”
Initially the County Fire Authority pressured the SD Rural fireboard to initiate the process of voting itself out of existence. However, the board asked for another year to consult with its constituents. If it voted in 2014 to dissolve, the district would cease to exist a year later and never come back.
Although most the board would likely vote for dissolution—or so Terry indicated—by law it cannot happen unless ALL directors vote to do so, pointed out Russo, the board chairman.
Russo, a bald, bullet-headed man with an air of supreme self-confidence, even in a room of people who clearly opposed him, calmly insisted, “If it is not unanimous to dissolve, then there would be a public vote.” He favored letting the people of the district decide.
Terry confirmed that. “This is all or none” for the district, he said, “you can’t have some areas say yes, others no.”
‘My concern is the haves and have-nots,” insisted Mary Manning, a Cedar Fire survivor who didn’t like the Hobson’s choice the community faced; didn’t like the fact that sometimes the fire station wasn’t staffed, but clearly felt that Harbison Canyon residents couldn’t afford a choice. “To me this is the only rule in town,” she said.
She jumped to her feet in frustration each time Russo spoke, clearly unhappy that he didn’t see what seemed obvious to her. “If we don’t go with the CFA we will have NO staffing and we, Harbison Canyon, are one of the priorities…I have a day care home and I love having people in that fire station … I’m pleased to have people staffing the station. Is it every day? No.” But that was better than nothing.
And, according to Captain Hendrie, things are getting better. He noted that: “We leave it to our operational partners (Cal Fire) to assign the staffing. Each has a station manager and if there are gaps, provide other station managers to fill that gap.” He added that call volume is up and that larger communities, with a larger tax base, like Jamul will get more staffing. Communities like Harbison, not so much.
The advantage of the Rural Fire District—and other districts—folding itself into CSA 135, said Reddick, is that where once there were several fire chiefs, there would be one, with a resultant cost savings. In the former Rural Fire district the goal would be that each station would have at least two firefighters per station, which would be a net plus for areas that had never had service.
Russo, who supports letting the voters of the district decide the issue, said that communities like the ones in Rural Fire should use the principle of the squeaky wheel to influence the supervisors, who are politicians. “I used to teach political science. They do what the squeaky wheel tells them to do. I don’t like politicians telling me what to do.”
Russo is concerned that the Board of Supervisors can change its mind at any time about funding the CFA because it is not required by the County Charter to provide fire service.
One man in the audience asked, “Why have a fire station if you’re not going to man it?
“That’s my question and I’m not getting answers from the Supervisors,” said Russo.
Manning, clearly frustrated with Russo, said that people need to persuade him to the wisdom of giving in to the County on this issue.
Russo argues that the County can be persuaded to back down. After the meeting he told reporters that the Rural Fire was a good department and “I believe there is no good, valid reason to do this. Except the motive of money.” People in the Backcountry are getting a tiny percentage of the money they pay in property taxes for public safety returned to them in kind, he says.
“They are giving us less than two-tenths of one percent,” said Russo. “To me that’s a bargain…” for the County. “What the County did tonight, is the County made no promises. The County could turn around and it could turn all these stations into volunteers.”
A few weeks later Russo attended a community meeting at Lake Moreno, which he described as, “completely opposite of Harbison Canyon.”
Apparently the decision by the residents of the Rural Fire District as to whether to dissolve it is still very much up in the air.
Read part I in the Chaparral Rebellion series, “Backcountry fire departments fighting to maintain independence.”
Full disclosure: My house partially burned on June 11 of this year, and was only saved from complete destruction by the prompt arrival of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department. Briefly I was a candidate for the department’s board of directors, but withdrew on the day of the election because I perceived that even if I won I would be at odds with a majority of the directors. On this issue I am an advocacy journalist. – David Ross