“This is your house.” -- Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber
By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor
Editor Miriam Raftery also contributed to this report
January 24, 2019 (Julian) –“We’re rising from the ashes and we will emerge like the Phoenix, even better than before we were,” Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber told a crowd of some 75 citizens at a spaghetti dinner held Sunday in the main stationhouse on Highway79.
The mood was buoyant, despite storm clouds still looming over the district. A special election to save the county’s last volunteer fire department is slated for March, after residents gathered enough signatures to put the decision on the ballot and temporarily block takeover by the County Fire Department run by Cal-Fire.
The event came to fruition weeks after CalFire moved out of the Julian Fire Station and back into a nearby station in early December, putting JCFPD back into the driver’s seat for fire protection and medical emergency services.
Chief Van Bibber announced that in the last few weeks since the Julian volunteer firefighters took back control from Cal Fire, 58 people have applied to be volunteer firefighters; 25 have been offered position and will start the training academy on Feb. 2.
“The days of showing up in our pickup trucks and on horseback are gone,” Van Bibber said, referencing well-equipped fire engines and training. “All are now trained to state firefighter levels,” he said of the volunteers.
Since the JCFPD’s return to control, it has addressed the deficiencies cited by California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA) and the firefighter personal gear which was taken out of service during a recent inspection.
The dinner also was used as an opportunity to recognize Dave Southcott and Dave Jensen as “Firefighter of the Year” as a part of the district’s Larry Hutchinson Award, recognizing Hutchinson who started the JCFPD in 1981.
Canned food was collected by the Julian Firefighters Association to stock the Julian Blessing Box, a food pantry which provides food for those facing a immediate need.
T-shirts and sweatshirts for sale, along with a donation jar, also brought in dollars for the district. Food served at the event was funded by Julian Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), the Julian Cuyamaca Firefighters Association, Menghini Winery, CVS Alpine and members of Julian’s community.
Just as the effort to regain autonomy has been difficult in the face of attempts to abolish the district, organizers of the event early on faced a potential shutdown. “The county tried to shut this event down,” Van Bibber told ECM. As a way around the restrictions imposed on the event, the volunteers serving the food went through food handler training and the entrée was prepared at an off-site kitchen.
If the district retains its independence, Cal-Fire would not run the district, but should provide backup as it has through the years when a wildfire or major incident occurs. The key difference is that going forward, an independent JFCPD would operate without county funds and would be responsible for raising its own fundraising.
That prospect doesn’t daunt supporters, who want to assure that stations won’t be unmanned with dark days and that firefighters will be present in Julian even if Cal-Fire is dispatched to a wildland fire somewhere else.
But not everyone agrees.
This past November, Julian voters filled three vacancies on the JCFPD board with new members who favor keeping the district independent.
Aida Tucker, a board member who voted in the past to dissolve the JCFPD, resigned her position in December, citing concerns over the new direction of the current governing board.
Before resigning, she told KPBS-TV, "I looked at the budget and saw that there’s no way we were going to be able to make it in the next couple years. We probably would be broke by then without any extra help, so thinking about the community and what they deserve, I decided to go ahead and vote to dissolve the district.”
Van Bibber, however, put forth a more optimistic message. “It’s neighbors serving neighbors,” he said, adding that if the vote turns in the district’s favor, the spaghetti dinner will be the first of many events for the public to interact with their firefighters at the fire station.
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