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October 3, 2012
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North San Juan fire department built by volunteers


It has been 150 years since the citizens of North San Juan formed an all-volunteer fire department to help protect their community.

Today, the North San Juan Fire Protection District remains one of the few fire departments in Nevada County that functions with an almost completely volunteer staff.

The district covers the largest territory in the county, at 70-plus square miles, which includes the area between the South and Middle Yuba rivers, and from Bridgeport in the west to Malakoff Diggins State Park in the east.

According to Assistant Fire Chief Boyd Johnson, the district has the tiniest budget in the county ($224,000 in 2010-11), but the number of firefighters staffing calls is comparable to other departments. To put that into perspective, Nevada County Consolidated’s budget for 2010-11 was $5.3 million.

North San Juan is not truly an all-volunteer fire department, because the manager and secretary are paid part-time positions and Fire Chief Jason Flores receives a modest stipend of $1,500 a month.

The only two truly all-volunteer fire departments in the county are Graniteville and Washington; Ophir Hill and Peardale-Chicago Park have a paid chief and some other paid firefighting positions.

The cadre of volunteers in North San Juan cover other areas as needed, up to Allegheny and Downieville; Flores estimated that crews respond to Camptonville and Pike about once a month. The district provides emergency services for 250 to 300 incidents per year, according to its website.

Running a volunteer fire department can be challenging, but Flores sees the benefits as well.

“You get community members who want to help out their community,” he said. “If we were to consolidate, we would have staff that doesn’t know the community folks. You would have a stranger walk into your house who isn’t a Ridge person.”

The type of people who volunteer for the department are motivated, Johnson said, adding, “They want to help.”

Simple economics is a big reason to keep the department staffed on a volunteer basis, Johnson noted.

“Fire districts depend on the local tax base,” he said. “Obviously, we have a tiny population and a tiny tax base. We would have to be subsidized” if the district wanted to pay staff.

Johnson pointed out that nationwide many communities of less than 25,000 people have volunteer fire departments.

“Nevada County is odd in that it very quickly converted to paid departments,” he said.

Volunteers mean a more
diverse staff

Most paid departments hire younger recruits and put them through a three-month fire academy, Johnson said. But North San Juan volunteers are mix of younger and older, with some firefighters in their 50s and 60s.

This can be a positive as well, Johnson said.

“The older volunteers are more mature,” he said. “They’re not testosterone-dazed knuckleheads.”

Of the current roster of 18 active firefighters at North San Juan, seven have come on board so recently that they have not yet completed the basic volunteer firefighter training.

The mix of experience makes managing the department harder for Flores. Johnson said.

“If your firefighters all have the same level of training, they’re interchangeable,” he said. “But Jason has to think about, who can hump hose? That is a challenge ... It makes it more interesting, anyway.”

That mix of experience tends to remain fairly constant, both Flores and Johnson said, with a handful of volunteers who
have been around 10 to 15 years and most having been with
the department for just a few years.

Both Flores and Johnson proudly point to what they say is one of the most extensive training programs for a volu
nteer department, calling it invaluable on-the-job training for recruits who then go on to work for paid fire agencies such as Cal Fire.

“That first year, year and a half, you’re getting a lot of experience (here),” Flores said.

When the district formed in 1986, it chose to follow OSHA training requirements, albeit on a slowed-down schedule.

“Some people are scared away, when they see the hours they have to put in,” Johnson said.

“The training regimen is longer here,” he added. “It could take a year or two to get all the certifications. But the on-the-job training is much quicker. In the end, you can be as knowledgeable as (someone) who went through the fire academy.”

Flores encourages anyone interested in volunteering to attend some of the department’s Wednesday training sessions. Training topics vary, depending on the season, Flores said. In the spring, firefighters might get a lot of wildland training. Currently, the department is starting vehicle extrication and structure fire training.

Once a month, Sierra Nevada Ambulance provides medical training as well, an important facet for North San Juan volunteers who typically will be first on the scene to any medical call, given the fact that an ambulance being dispatched from Grass Valley is about 20 minutes out.

Once a volunteer in training received the first aid and CPR certification, they are handed a pager and start going out on calls.

“It’s an opportunity that we offer that can be hard to obtain, that hands-on experience,” Flores said.

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.


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The Union Updated Nov 6, 2012 08:29AM Published Oct 5, 2012 10:59PM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.