Report: Fire agencies in Calif. counties face crisis fueled by funding, labor shortfalls
A recent government study of 15 agencies found they struggle with too few firefighters, not enough money and ambulance services that are stretched thin
By Randi Rossmann
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
GUERNEVILLE, Calif. — Signs taped to the entrances of Guerneville’s fire station warn people that it’s risky to step inside — an unusual message for a building dedicated to public safety. It turns out this Russian River firehouse is among an aging group of unreinforced masonry structures in jeopardy of collapse in a major temblor.
“You may not be safe inside,” the sign reads, “during an earthquake.”
Which is precisely the time when those stationed in the building and their equipment would be needed to respond to rescues and aid calls in the event of a major quake, wildfire or flood in the area.
Just down the road, Monte Rio’s 1950s-era fire station is in similar shape, as is Cazadero’s — all three don’t pass modern seismic standards that decades ago forced universities, hospitals and many other commercial and residential landlords to pursue costly upgrades for the sake of public safety.
The structural deficiencies are among numerous challenges faced by western Sonoma County’s fire departments.
A recent government study of the 15 agencies, spread from Two Rock to Fort Ross, found they struggle with too few firefighters, not enough money and ambulance service that is often stretched thin.
“An awful lot of times (a single firefighter) is all they can muster” from about 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., when more volunteers return to their community from working elsewhere, said Mark Bramfitt, executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission, which conducted the study and oversees government service boundaries, including those for fire agencies.
“Even for the agencies that are not currently in distress, the fragility of neighboring agencies affects all communities due to potential declines in mutual aid support capability,” Bramfitt wrote in the report, referencing the ability of fire entities to help one another.
The study concluded that all the west county agencies face unsustainable service levels in the future. For some, that threshold could come sooner, including Occidental, Fort Ross and Cazadero, Bramfitt said. Others in better shape for now are Forestville, Graton, Timber Cove and Gold Ridge fire districts, but those eventually are expected to face trouble in the form of staffing and money woes. The study recommended all of the agencies consider consolidating with neighbors and that additional money was needed to shore up services.
That’s a message fire officials have reiterated for years: that without substantial funding — millions of dollars to modernize aging structures and millions more to replace fire engines and add staff — agencies countywide face deep cuts in service and, for some, potential closures.
County officials are eyeing a potential tax measure next year that could, if approved by voters, address some of the financial shortfall.
In the meantime, little in the report was news to Lynda Hopkins, the county supervisor whose district includes all 15 agencies. She praised the review but bemoaned the issues it documented. “It’s a road map of how the struggles across agencies are very similar,” she said.
The report comes at a key crossroads for Sonoma County, now two years removed from the most devastating natural disaster on local record, an outbreak of wildfire unprecedented in California at the time. Its toll in Sonoma County was 24 lives and 5,334 homes.
©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)