Report finds fire agencies in western Sonoma County face crisis fueled by funding, labor shortfalls
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.
Even before then, the county’s antiquated firefighting network — made up at the time of about 40 departments, districts and volunteer companies — was in flux. Fire chiefs have been pushing to move to a more centralized system with fewer agencies, and they can point to a few consolidations in recent years that aim to bolster operations while cutting down on administrative overhead. More are queuing up for consolidation, including five agencies in the Sonoma Valley.
But the cost of firefighting in California and across the nation is rising, fueled by the expense of a highly trained, increasingly professional labor force and the long list of capital projects needed to bring many departments into the modern era. Those costs threaten to outstrip the budgets of many local districts, and the west county has more of those agencies than almost any other part of the North Bay.
So the risks presented by unreinforced masonry in the three firehouses that serve the lower Russian Valley exist at the top of a long list of firefighting concerns for Hopkins, the 5th District supervisor.
“If we had an earthquake, our firefighters, our engines, our Russian River ambulance could be trapped under a pile of rubble when we need them,” she said.
Some stations are poorly ventilated, have no sleeping quarters or can barely fit engines and don’t meet disability access requirements for public buildings, the study found. In fact, the only west county firehouse that fully meets access laws is Graton’s relatively new station, according to the report.
Meanwhile, a new era of catastrophic wildfire has set in, with the potential to overpower even the most robust and resilient firefighting networks. While the 2017 North Bay fires were met with largely exemplary teamwork by the county’s fire agencies, the disaster also revealed weaknesses in the system, especially communication issues.
It also highlighted the benefits of regional administration. The current reorganization plan calls for reducing the number of agencies — now down to about three dozen — to a handful of regional fire districts. Ultimately, some officials want fire services consolidated in one countywide agency.
The Board of Supervisors continues to pledge more money for agencies that move in that direction and band together. But the county can’t afford it alone, supervisors say. Instead, they have backed a plan by fire officials to seek a countywide quarter‑cent sales tax, perhaps on the March ballot, to raise some $42 million annually for fire prevention and services.
A handful of fire agencies, including Occidental, Gold Ridge and Graton, may not wait that long. They are considering a November ballot measure to raise money through a parcel tax.
The region is problematic in large part because it has so many players in firefighting, an outgrowth of the era when firefighting was done largely by volunteers from individual towns and outlying farms. Those days are fast disappearing as the number of volunteers drops.
A handful of discussions are underway, envisioning a day when Cazadero’s department would cover all the way to Fort Ross on the coast, while Russian River fire officials have voted to join the growing Sonoma County Fire District, headquartered in Windsor and serving a wide arc of the county outside of Santa Rosa.
The west county study was done to help with the region’s reorganization talks. A follow-up report, expected out this fall, will put forward options for additional consolidation.
“Something needs to happen,” LAFCO Chairman Ernie Loveless said at a recent meeting. “Somebody needs to push this issue.”
You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org.