A quarter of all rural stations were closed –at the same time—during April
An East County Magazine special investigative report
By Miriam Raftery
July 31, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) – The County Fire Authority has touted its successes in preventing the May wildfires in North County from destroying thousands of homes despite a county-wide disaster declaration. Granted, a lot has improved since the devastating 2003 and 2007 firestorms in our region--the worst in California's history. But if fires were to start in East County today, the outcome could be tragic. An East County Magazine investigation raises serious doubts over inadequate volunteer firefighter staffing and the ability to respond even to routine house fires and medical calls in some rural communities.
Last October, our investigative report,"Closed for Fire Season" revealed that Boulevard’s fire station was closed for two months during fire season and Jacumba’s station also had some dark days- -including one when a resident died of a medical emergency after a delay in emergency services arriving. The County responded by funding emergency staffing and according to Supervisor Jacob’s staff, these two stations remained open every day for at least several months thereafter, an ECM records check in late April revealed.
But on July 9, Craig Williams, an information technology provider for the Campo Fire Department, advised ECM that “without any notification to the community leaders." two days ago Cal Fire “moved the overtime, off-budget, paid Cal Fire firefighters out of Boulevard to Jacumba Hot Springs. Now Boulevard is stuck with Fire Authority `volunteers’ only, just like Campo.’”
Worse, a new investigation by ECM reveals that this is the tip of an iceberg--with many stations understaffed and some closed for months.
Our recent public records requests found that during 21 days in April, of 23 rural fire stations listed in the county’s unincorporated areas, at least three were closed each day and as many as six were closed at one time– over a quarter of all rural stations. Some haven’t been staffed in months, we learned. Even areas that have been ravaged by some of our County’s worst wildfires were unmanned.
The County is relying on Cal-Fire crews stationed elsewhere to fill the gap—but some residents and rural fire experts say that’s not enough. They voice concerns that scrimping on funding for manpower to staff stations, along with tougher training requirements that have driven away volunteer firefighters, has resulted in stations left bare.
“The program is failing. You’ve got these station closures and that’s compromising public safety,” Mark Ostrander, retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief, told East County Magazine.
County defends its actions, insists expenditures are adequate
The County pledged to improve fire protection with its newly established County Fire Authority (CFA). Since 2003, San Diego County has spent over $285 million to bolster fire protection, but the lion’s share has spent on equipment, however, not manpower.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob told ECM on April 28, “The result is a more nimble, better-trained, better-equipped firefighting force.”
But she concedes, “While the County has made major improvements over the past decade, there have also been growing pains. We need to continue to make sure the public doesn’t experience gaps in coverage and look at all options when it comes to recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters.”
She adds that the County maintains 24/7 coverage since many Cal Fire stations operate near volunteer stations and respond to both fire and medical calls. Response times in the backcountry average 10.5 minutes, which she calls “impressive” since the CFA and its partner agencies cover over 1.5 million acres including rugged and remote terrain.
Still, San Diego County spends only about $15- $18 million a year on firefighting staffing—actual manpower, not gear. That’s only about one-fifteenth of what Riverside County spends -- $230 million, yet Riverside County is smaller geographically with fewer people.
The calls comparisons to Riverside County “erroneous.” Regionwide $517 million a year is spent here on all 3.4 million residents countywide, Jacob’s office notes. That may be true – but the figure includes the incorporated cities as well as the county’s unincorporated areas. Riverside’s spending is for unincorporated areas only and does not include the city of Riverside, for example.
San Diego County advises that it spends $464 per person on fire protection in rural areas, more than the national average of $164 per resident. But most places in the nation don’t have the severe wildfires and Santa Ana winds that San Diego’s East County has. Many places nationally are dense urban areas, or flat farm-belt regions without the brush-filled rural terrain that our region has.
County staff concedes that “Rural routinely does not staff some of their stations” when they are near stations that are fully funded and staffed by Cal Fire, since Cal Fire backfills stations when an engine is deployed, in theory. Some stations receive few calls; for instance Ranchita averages a little over one service call a month and relies on Borrego Springs to send backup when it’s not open. But it’s a long drive from Borrego to Ranchita—25 minutes in the best of weather. That’s too long for the caller suffering a heart attack or house fire, when every second counts.
A question of priorities: fired-up rural residents ask why County spent $49 million on new waterfront park, but only $15 to $18 million on firefighting manpower
Why has our county repeatedly told rural fire officials and concerned residents that it can’t afford to spend more to fully staff rural fire stations, yet it expended over $49 million on a new waterfront park around the County Administration building where Supervisors meet? The new 12-acre park includes 208 trees, a playground, gardens, picnic areas and a dramatic 830-foot linear water fountain the length of the County Administration building --shooting 31 steams of water some 14 feet in the air for children to play in. The $49 million budget includes $13 million from the County’s general fund—money that could have been expended on beefing up firefighting instead, had Supervisors opted to do so. The County has also spent money on new libraries, parks, trails, and a Lakeside skate park in recent months. All are strong community assets – but rural residents believe fire protection should have been a higher priority.
“I’m angry that they say they can’t afford staffing, but they can afford a water park?” Ostrander told ECM, shocked to learn of the expenditure.
He also criticized Supervisors for approving industrial-scale wind and solar energy projects in rural areas without requiring developers to pay for improving firefighting resources.
“They are increasing our risk, and they pay nothing,” he said of the energy corporations pushing forward projects slated to cover thousands of acres. A revised environmental impact report for SOITEC’s solar projects does call for more equipment to fight fires. But Ostrander, echoing a concern voiced by many others, said the county’s “priorities are way off. They already have equipment they can’t staff…If you don’t have anyone to use it, it’s a phantom fire department.”
Jan Hedlun, secretary of the Potrero Planning Group, barely escaped with her life the morning of the Harris Fire in 2007. That firestorm, fueled by 100 mile an hour hurricane-force winds, started in Potrero just over the hill from Hedlun’s home. It burned down many houses in Potrero, creating tornados of fire as part of the second most destructive fire storms in California history –after the 2003 Cedar Fire.
Now Potrero’s volunteer fire station, which was recently upgraded, is effectively closed. It hasn’t been staffed in months or maybe years, other than during elections as a polling place. While there is a Cal-Fire station close by within a mile, Hedlun said, “I was one of the ones trapped here in 2007…to me, I always have a fire concern.”
Hedlun is dismayed that San Diego spends less on firefighting manpower than what Riverside and other wildfire-prone California counties spend--though the county counters that this depends on how you measure; for the unincorporated areas the county maintains it spends more than adjoining counties for rural coverage.
Still Hedlun states, “I would like them to spend more money on backcountry fire concerns.” She faulted the County’s attitude. “It’s like, `You live out in the backcountry, that’s your choice.’ We want fire protection too! We pay our taxes. We do everything city folks do. We should get the same considerations.”
She is especially concerned in the current intensive drought.
“We’ve had minimal ran and already our fields out here are turning dry,” she said. She faults the County’s reliance on Cal-Fire to protect rural residents instead of providing volunteers or professional firefighters based in each town. She worries what will happen if Cal-Fire crews are sent to fight a wildfire elsewhere. “It would be like the United Sates being without the National Guard,” she said.
Moreover, Williams notes, “San Diego County is the ONLY major County in California where fire protection/services are NOT required by the County charter.”
ECM has repeatedly asked County officials why they haven’t amended the Charter to add fire protection and services, particularly given that rural residents are being asked to dissolve rural fire departments and join the CFA. No explanation has been provided for the County’s hesitancy to assure these services as essential rights and duties.
Small stipends, increased training times blamed for troubles recruiting rural firefighters
Several firefighting insiders, some of whom spoke off record due to fear of retaliation, told ECM the solution to the staffing shortage is simple: increase stipends that are currently only about $100 a day to $200 a day. None of those who told us this are firefighters and none have a vested interest in seeing stipends raised.
A staffer for Supervisor Jacob, asked about this option, said County staff have advised that the County cannot increase stipends for volunteers because “federal labor law limits stipend pay to a fixed percentage. Under the law, a stipend cannot exceed 20 percent of the total compensation that the employer would pay a full-time firefighter. My understanding is that the amount currently paid to local volunteer firefighters is at that 20 percent cap.”
The staffer said instead a new recruiting and training program has been implemented, but that it “takes time to get people through the system.”
But sources in rural departments and even chiefs within the CFA and Cal Fire have told ECM that recruitment hasn’t kept pace with attrition. Some indicated that since the CFA partnered with Cal Fire for rural fire protection, increased training requirements have caused nearly all volunteer firefighters to quit because they can’t meet physical requirements.
It’s difficult to recruit replacements, since most people can’t afford to leave their jobs for weeks or even months of training now required. Hence station closures are on the rise and volunteers are being hired away from the CFA – most of them by Cal Fire, faster than replacements are being trained.
Short-staffing even at open stations—and a shortage of water tender truck drivers
Worse, even when staffed –there may not be firefighters capable of responding to fires or medical emergencies.
In November, Williams pulled public records and found his station had 71 dark days in 2013, compared to 8 in 2010 before the CFA came in. That included 42 days when nobody was on duty and another 29 when there was only one person on duty. “They can’t leave the station with one person. You can’t drive the fire truck
So he pulled records for all rural stations—and found 10 were dark – all in Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s East County district. “She was shocked. She had no idea this was going on,” Williams said.
Jacob convened a meeting in November with CFA officials and concerned community members. At that meeting Williams dropped a bombshell: records providing that of 476 members listed on the CFA roster, only about half – 246—were actually firefighters, the rest were administrators or other personnel. Of those, 23 hadn’t pulled a shift in the past three months so were essentially inactive. Only 55 were listed as qualified to drive a fire engine and currently active, and only a small handful – 8 – were listed as able to drive a water tender truck across all stations.
Since then things have gotten even worse. As of April 28, 457 members are listed, of whom just 188 are firefighters. Only 54 are driver/operators for fire trucks and just 7 can drive a water tender truck in the entire unincorporated area.
Also alarming, Williams records proved that countywide in the rural areas, only an average of 1.7 firefighters were assigned per station. It takes four to fight a house fire on the inside or to rescue anyone trapped, since labor rules require two in, two outside for the safety of firefighters. A minimum of two is required even for medical calls.
When Hannah Anderson’s kidnapper set fire to his Boulevard home with her mother and brother inside, William reveals that the Boulevard Station was closed and the Campo station, which had the nearest water tender, was also closed. TV video shot 45 minutes after the fire began showed “five firefighters, four of them standing around and the fifth was squirting a little inch-and-a-half fire hose on this massive fire, because that was all the water he had.” Firefighters from Cal Fire who did respond to the blaze ran out of water, with the nearest water tender 45 minutes away, Williams added.
A UT San Diego story published May 25 states, “the county is struggling to build the volunteer force. On average on any day, the county has 38 volunteers on duty.” Moreover the UT reported that Ron Lane, a county deputy chief administrative officer and fire warden, said that ideally the volunteer staffing should be at 350—or about 10 times the existing level.
The UT story further found, “Graduates from the volunteer training academies are hired away almost as soon as they finish training. And although he new equipment is helpful, just a fraction of the volunteers are cleared to operate it.” From January to earl May the county graduated 55 new volunteer firefighters but 56 were hired away – 46 of them by Cal Fire, County data revealed.
Response times far longer than in urban areas
“Our lead times are 15 to 20 minutes,” Williams said of response times in Campo. The national standard is 8 minutes—the time it takes a wiring fire to fully engulf a structure.
Some place have improved; Boulevard’s response time in the ‘90s was around 15 minutes; today it is closer to 10 minutes, according to Jacob’s staffer.
Jacob’s office confirmed through staff that overall in the rural areas, response times average 10.27 minutes. Among all calls last year, 24% had prompt response times of five minutes or less. Another 36% had response times of 5 to 10 minutes. But 22% had responses that took 10 to 15 minutes, 9% took 15 to 20 minutes, and 9% took 20 minutes or more—in some cases, much more. The longest response time was an astonishing three hours and 41 minutes.
Who will respond to local fires and medical calls if Cal-Fire crews are dispatched to a wildfire?
The County plan is to rely on Cal Fire to cover rural stations that are closed. In some cases, Cal Fire stations are located within a mile. But in the off-season some cal Fire stations only have two firefighters per engine. Worse, during fire season, rural residents want to know who will put out a house fire or respond to medical emergencies if Cal Fire crews are dispatched to battle a wildfire in our backcountry or via mutual aid, to fires in distant counties? The County says Cal-Fire will back-fill local stations. But how long will that take – and how many homes or lives may be lost due to non-local firefighters unfamiliar with local roads?
Computer access to staffing records restricted
Since Williams obtained those records through official sources and distributed them in November, the County has changed its computer system. Now a local station chief or battalion leader can no longer access staffing records countywide. Williams wonders if this is an attempt to hide short-staffing.
Sarah Gordon, communications officer for the County’s public safety group, insists that “The County Fire Authority is covering the backcountry with timely, professional emergency response, and we take public safety extremely seriously. “ She insists there is no recent change in day-to-day staffing and claims the change in access to prevent station managers from accessing staff records at other stations is based on a countywide policy of “appropriate access” to records. Records are available through public information requests, however, as ECM’s recent responses proved. But why shouldn’t local station officials be able to easily view staffing levels region-wide?
County seeks firefighting volunteers
Gordon added that the County has added more ways to attract qualified volunteers, adding 71 new volunteers thus far this year with another orientation planned in June. Anyone wanting to learn about volunteering can visit http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/sdcfa/volunteerinterest.html .
Gordon said that the CFA and Rural Fire Protection stations are covered under the same Cal Fire-headed operational system “with Cal Fire making sure rural communities are covered at all times” by a nearby Cal-Fire crew if a rural station is closed.
But rural fire insiders voice continuing concern that with many stations uncovered, resources are spread too thin—especially if a wildfire pulls Cal-Fire crews away to battle a firestorm.
Is your fire station closed? Here’s what our investigation this spring found
Tipped off to even more closures by local firefighting insiders, ECM began calling rural fire stations. After finding no answer at seven in a single day on April 15, we subsequently submitted a public records request to the County Fire Authority, which referred us to Chief Dave Nissan. Nissan has long served as Chief of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District, now being absorbed into the CFA.
Nissan sent records on April 24 that were labeled as month to date, but three dates were missing or had files with data from wrong dates. Of the 21 days we were able to obtain data on, we found that on April 24, the most recent date listed, six stations were closed. On six other dates in April, five stations were simultaneously closed. On six dates, four stations were closed, and on the eight remaining days, three stations were closed. We have requested data on the missing three days.
Dulzura and Potrero stations were not open a single day in April. Harbison Canyon’s station was staffed only once, as of April 24. Deerhorn Valley had eight “dark days with no staffing. Ranchita was closed seven days. Cuyamaca (not part of the CFA) was uncovered (unstaffed) eight days and had “soft” coverage another nine days, meaning nobody was at the station, but volunteers nearby were on call. Campo was closed one day. Even the Mount Laguna station, where the Chariot Fire last year destroyed over a hundred structures, was closed at least once during April, though the County informs us that the U.S. Forest Service covers Mount Laguna’s area on days when volunteers don’t show up. The records had blanks on some stations on some dates, so the actual shortfalls in staffing at these stations may be even higher.
After the Cedar Fire, rural district’s request for more firefighters was ignored; more equipment was bought instead
Williams recalls that after the Cedar Fire, before starting up the CFA, the County brought volunteer departments together to ask what they needed. Campo asked for “more trained firefighters” as well as centralized purchasing and equipment maintenance.
“They could have done that without creating the CFA,” he said, adding that money was spent by the county on unneeded equipment and adding “18 bureaucrats” instead of simply increasing volunteer stipends.
“The problem five years ago when they came to us was not enough firefighters. The problem today, $380 million later, is not enough firefighters. What part of this do they not understand?” Williams says, his frustration evident. He also faulted the county for buying computers for rural stations—but no software, such as for GPS technology. The County has also invested in communications upgrades and beefing up aerial firefighting since the 2003 firestorms.
In a recent radio with ECM on KNSJ, Williams made clear, “We don’t have any more trained firefighters,” since volunteers have left. He asserts that protection is far worse now than before the CFA was started—worse than before the Cedar Fire. He added that instead of spending money on more equipment, the County should be investing much more money into firefighters. Campo’ Fire’s annual budget is just $65,000 a year and has been cut two years in a row, forcing the department to “hold a lot more bake sales.”
At the same time, Williams said, the county increased the Sheriff’s budget by $50 million. “How many armored vehicles do they need?” he asked.
Where does the buck stop?
Williams does not fault Cal Fire, and instead blames the County for “micro-managing” and placing bureaucrats without firefighting experience in charge of the CFA instead of letting Cal Fire run it – and providing adequate funding. He praised the Riverside model, which does not have a county fire authority but does partner with Cal Fire—successfully, in Williams’ view. Locally, some districts such as San Miguel have also forged independent partnerships with Cal Fire and managed to keep stations open daily—with more than bare-bones staffing.
Williams calls San Diego County videos hyping money spent on equipment and facilities upgrades “smoke and mirrors.” He insists staunchly, “You can’t make a County Fire Department for $15 million.”
Ostrander also emphasized the importance of funding to staff rural stations. He recalls that during the Harris Fire, volunteers armed only with shovels at the Campo Fire Station battled a spot fire that began in Jewel Valley, tapping into a water tank at the nearby railroad museum to quell the blaze. If nobody had been on duty, he believes that fire could have swiftly spread west to San Diego.
Multiple fire officials have confirmed that if not for a shift in winds, the Cedar, Witch Creek and Harris Fires, too, could have burned all the way to the coast. So not staffing rural fire stations puts all residents countywide at risk.
We asked Chief Nissan repeatedly whether he believes funding should be increased and what it would take to assure full staffing at rural stations. We also asked whether he expects the situation to get better or worse as the Rural Fire Protection District he has headed completes its merger with the County Fire Authority. But Chief Nissan never answered our questions, only forwarded staffing records.
Residents in some rural areas have told us that funding cuts have also stopped rural districts from conducting inspections for hazardous conditions, leaving brushy, overgrown lots to pose fire hazards for neighbors.
Some areas have actively resisted the County Fire Department takeover, such as Julian, where residents raised money from a large donor to keep their fire department independent, That rebellion occurred after the County said it would cut off funds unless Julian joined the CFA—and after Julian residents heard concerns raised at other CFA stations, where dark days had occurred. Palomar Mountain Fire Chief George Lucas told Julian residents that he regretted his department joining the CFA.
But others have welcomed the CFA and despite gaps in coverage, say it’s better than before.
“We had NO coverage until Cal-Fire built some sleeping quarters at the station, around 2010,” wrote Deerhorn Valley Antler editor Kim Hamilton in an e-mail to ECM. “We were completely volunteer, which meant that community volunteers took the call at home and were free to respond— or not. So to have paid/cadet staffing at all is a relatively new change.”
Still she adds, “There is some real uneasiness with the move to County Fire Authority--- but it has more to do with lack of local access, input, and control—different concerns than Julian, etc. —areas that had a robust volunteer fire department to begin with. We did not. And our ability to recruit active volunteers has diminished over the years as our resident population changed to more commuters who work outside the area and aren't available for calls.”
But even in Deerhorn Valley, where staffing initially improved, staffing figures provided by Hamilton show a drop in coverage in recent months:
87% Nov. 2012 - Jan. 29, 2013
90% Feb. 2013 - Apr. 30, 2013
71% May 2013 - July 30, 2013
71% Aug. 2013 - Oct. 29, 2013
68% Nov. 2013 - Jan. 28, 2014
“Do we feel safe? No,” Hamilton concluded on reflection, but added that living in a remote area means residents tend to “”know better than to rely upon firefighters.” Deerhorn Valley learned this the hard way in 2007, when Hamilton recalls, “our volunteer firefighters were sent to Potrero during the early hours of the Harris Fire, leaving Deerhorn Valley without protection.”
Firefighters from outside the area eventually arrived but didn’t know where to find large tanks locally filled with water, nor did they know the unpaved roadways, so they did not attempt to reach many homes, Hamilton said. “That is a big part of why so much of Deerhorn burned.”
Now residents implement fire hardening and defensible space, with some homeowners installing roof sprinklers and/or having fire gel ready to apply. The gel saved several homes there in 2007.
Hamilton said her biggest concern is medical response time, which is usually 20 to 30 minutes. She acknowledges, however, that slower response times are risks that come with the territory when residents choose to live in remote rural places.
Urban residents at risk, too
Despite concerns over limited coverage in her rural town, Hamilton believes that residents in Rancho San Diego, Spring Valley and other communities adjacent to fire-prone backcountry should be even more worried.
“They don’t have to follow the same fire codes and regulations we do; they know nothing about defensible space, and so they rely on the fire departments.” She believes these communities are “in more jeopardy than those of us in the true `wildfire’ areas—and they don’t even know it. As evidence, she attached photos of suburban homes in Scripps Ranch and Rancho Bernardo burning as wind-born embers spread swiftly from rooftop to rooftop in the 2003 and 2007 firestorms. Both fires leaped across freeways into the urban central corridor in the city of San Diego and the 2007 fires forced evacuations all the way to the Pacific Ocean in some portions of our county. In 2007, a half million people were forced to evacuate – the largest natural disaster evacuation in U.S. history.
Loss of fire insurance
Spotty fire station coverage can mean problems for residents besides the danger of fire or even medical response times.
Ostrander informed ust hat he is aware of rural residents who have lost their fire insurance after insurance companies learned of sporadic staffing and closures at rural stations—a problem that will likely become far worse unless the County takes action.
Palomar Mountain Fire Department’s Chief George Lucas, in a letter to San Pasqual Volunteer Fire Department’s Chief Davis, indicates he was pressured by the CFA to resign after he announced plans to speak out on issues of concern. He wrote, “The week before I was to present my recommendations through a deployment study and report to the community at the regular public fire board meeting, I received a call from a member of the staff at the SDCFA. The conversation was short and sweet. The caller told me it would be a good time to retire as fire chief.”
Lucas presented the deployment study anyhow at the public meeting and says, “The fire board’s reaction was not to read it, not to release it to the public,” he stated adding that Cal Fire and the SDCFA also went to Valley Center’s Fire Board and sought to discipline him for his actions on behalf of Palomar Mountain. He retired soon after and alleges that he experienced a “conspiracy” involving a deputy fire chief and fire board members that included “secret meetings behind closed doors without my knowledge.”
Who should do the hiring?
At least one rural station has taken steps on its own to find new recruits to serve as volunteers But it may lose the ability to do so in the future.
Shelter Valley has avoided dark days and maintained a minimum of two firefighters per day, three or more in most months, Department Chief Keith Bennett told ECM in an email sent May 29th. That’s not true of most other departments, he adds. “The lack of dark days in SVVFD is in no way a result of the SDCFA,” he makes clear. “We do our own recruiting and interviewing prior to the SDCFA and as such as have not had the tremendous turnover that the program has had in general.”
But he reveals, that is “an area of concern for the future however, as the SDCFA is looking into requiring that ALL recruiting be done by them.”
Problems may worsen, but what’s the solution?
Our April records request and calls to rural stations were done following a tip from a whistleblower in another district, who warned that many stations are now closed routinely.
Worse, he warned that many volunteers have left to accept paid firefighting jobs at Cal Fire and elsewhere—and that “boatloads more” station closures can be expected in the near future. That source added that the County’s entire budget for volunteer stipends is only $1.4 million.
His contention appears to be borne out by the fact that the County listed just 188 firefighters at our last check in May, down from 246 last November, with station closures on the rise.
“Cal Fire in California is facing one of the worst fire seasons in local memory,” he said, adding that Cal Fire has hired away so many volunteers from the CFA that “this leaves a great big hole there. This could be filled almost immediately if they would raise per diem pay to $200,” he said when asked how the County could assure protection in rural areas. “ I am told that they have the money. They just don’t have the will.”
But if the County contention that labor laws prohibit larger stipends is accurate, what will it take to recruit more volunteers—or simply fund full-time paid firefighters to assure that all rural areas are adequately covered for fire and medical emergencies? Public safety is, after all, the core role of any local government.
One veteran firefighter asks, ““If someone dies because the fire station near their home is closed due to lack of staffing, might the County be at risk of a costly wrongful death lawsuit?”
Not investing in whatever it takes to attract and retain enough firefighters to fully protect rural communities may prove pennywise, pound foolish in the long run.