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THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | October 4, 2018
Four central Sonoma County fire agencies aim to join forces within months as one huge fire district — a shift fast-tracked by the October fires and the most visible progress in a years‑long effort to streamline the county’s outdated, uneven and financially struggling fire services network.
Windsor, Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley fire districts and the Mountain Volunteer Company are on track to be one agency by this spring.
The plan is backed by the Board of Supervisors, which has long favored consolidation and which last year promised funding for agencies joining forces. Currently, almost 40 fire agencies exist countywide, but the operating theory is that a more centralized, professional firefighting corps can be better prepared for a future with more destructive, faster-moving wildfires.
The new 160-square-mile district with 75,000 residents would cover about a tenth of the county in a swath that encircles Santa Rosa. Officials say it could serve as a template for future consolidation in fire service.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins called the proposal the long-awaited “break in the dam.”
“Once this goes forward we’re going to see lots of agencies having watched that succeed and eager to go out and make their own mark and come together with their neighbors,” Hopkins said.
The move to unify long-separate fire entities is another major result of the historic infernos that raged across the North Bay last year, overwhelming both local and state firefighting resources. Other changes affecting fire and emergency response have included a new state mandate to standardize disaster alerts, improved training for 911 dispatchers and a surge in funding for firefighting and forestland fuel management.
In Sonoma County, for the past five years, fire officials sitting on multiple committees pushed for the type of consolidation now underway. Complexities and lingering reluctance to lose independence stalled most efforts. The main exception was Geyeserville fire’s annexation of the Knights Valley volunteer fire jurisdiction.
Then last Oct. 8 and 9, hot winds fueled a deadly outbreak of fire across Northern California. Firefighters in the county worked together, as they do, regardless of jurisdiction. In the aftermath, obstacles to change seemed less formidable, with a new attitude of collaboration and greater sense of urgency forged by disaster.
“Out of the fires came inspiration and motivations,” said Mark Heine, fire chief of Rincon Valley and Windsor. He endorsed and expanded consolidation efforts started by retired Chief Jack Piccinini and is slated to be chief of the proposed new district, expected to be up and running by April.
It’s a pragmatic move for several of the fire districts.
On their own, Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley and Mountain face severe financial loss in property tax revenue from thousands of burned homes and the risk in the next few years of budget and staff cuts.
Consolidating should shore up their financial outlook, according to a county analysis.
“It’s a path forward,” Heine said. “Thirty‑plus fire agencies is not sustainable.”
Rest of county
Progress is slower elsewhere in the county where several fire agencies remain in talks. But even that step is some improvement, officials said.
The west county is lagging far behind in the process, said Hopkins, who represents the area. There are 22 fire agencies in her supervisorial district with varying interest in change. Progress there includes a plan underway for a summit of west county fire agencies, spanning from Bloomfield to Timber Cove on the coast.
The county’s remaining 11 volunteer companies, situated in rural areas, are also unifying under their own administration, called the North Bay Fire District — a interim move that follows supervisors’ clear signal that they want the county out of the fire command business.
Changes in service, cost for residents
As planned, the new district outside Santa Rosa would have more firefighters in Windsor, Bennett Valley and Mountain, more efficient service through shared equipment and administration and funding to stave off service reductions, Heine said.
It’ll also cost more for property owners.
Rincon Valley residents currently pay $36 annually for fire services through their property tax bill. That figure would rise to $182 with the new district. For Bennett Valley land owners, the cost will jump from $180 annually to $272, including a prior tax measure that remains in place. Land owners in the Mountain jurisdiction currently pay nothing, but under the new plan would pay about $175 per parcel, Heine said. Windsor’s parcel tax cost of about $190 per parcel would remain the same, Heine said.
Without consolidation, Rincon and Bennett Valley property owners likely would have faced new tax measures to avoid cuts in service, the chief said.
Fire officials hope home owners won’t begrudge the new charges, saying they will be mostly offset by the cancellation in 2017 of the state’s controversial annual $150 fire fee for rural properties.
“Those people can put as much as $150 toward the new cost and 100 percent of that stays in your fire district for your protection,” said Frank Treanor, president of Windsor fire’s board of directors and longtime former chief of Rancho Adobe in Cotati and Penngrove. “If you want fire protection you’ve got to pay for it.”
Increased costs would cover salary hikes for Bennett Valley and Windsor firefighters to match Rincon Valley, plus hiring of an additional battalion chief and deputy chief.
The new district has so far gotten approval from key players including the Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, which oversees special taxing districts. LAFCO’s analysis determined it would benefit residents and the agencies, said Mark Bramfit, agency director. A final decision is on track for the April start-up date.
The plan also relies on supervisors supporting the new initiative as promised. That includes $250,000 annually to provide 12‑hour daytime staffing at Mountain’s volunteer station in the hills above northeast Santa Rosa. Volunteers, who typically work outside of their rural neighborhood, would be available for nighttime calls. Without the money the other agencies can’t afford to include the volunteer company, Heine said.
“If the county can do the appropriate financial deal to make the Mountain thing work, that’s a really strong signal to everybody in fire services that we can make these things happen,” said LAFCO’s Bramfit.
Supervisors have signaled they’re prepared to pay, a pivot that took shape in the past few years, when current board members acknowledged the county’s decades of meager-to-minimal funding for volunteer companies and the overall firefighting network.
That’s begun to change, but to fix the ailing system and improve firefighting countywide, chiefs in August told supervisors they’ll need $42 million annually for a detailed plan including 175 more firefighters. Supervisors approved the plan, agreeing that cost will likely take a half-cent countywide sales tax measure, which could go to voters in 2019.
“Even without that we’ll comb through existing resources, really look under every far corner of the county budget to see what we can invest in fire services,” Hopkins said. “We can no longer ignore fire services.”
Aware of the political headwinds that any tax increase would face at the ballot box, supporters of the new district say they are glad to be moving fast on their plan.
“We’re striking while the iron is hot and the supervisors are anxious to help agencies make changes,” said Treanor.
What’s in a name?
The new name for the Windsor, Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley and Mountain mash up may be the Sonoma County Fire District, the top pick in a firefighter poll.
Some call it an overreach, with only four agencies involved. But Heine sees the name as a first step in what could be an expanding agency and even serve as a model for an eventual countywide fire district.
Rincon Valley fire Capt. Ryan Estes agreed. “Maybe it invites other people who maybe want to join us in the future. We’re all Sonoma County when it comes down to the fires.”
Larkfield residents, who suffered tremendous loss in the Tubbs fire, don’t seem to mind about the name change, Estes said. They are more concerned that someone is on watch and ready to respond when needed, and that such service can be sustained.
With the new district taking shape, Estes says he now has an answer. “We need to build something to go long term,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter@rossmannreport.