Fire coverage demands grow with new development
South County is one of the most susceptible areas to fire in the region due to its geographic position, its moderately wet winters combined with dry, sweltering summers and its largely rural housing patterns set amid a teeming wilderness of vegetation that acts as fire fuel.
Higgins Fire Protection District, which provides service to approximately 12,000 residents in South County, has been increasingly constrained in providing service, which has led the district to seek an additional $100 from annual property tax bills for the 90-square-mile area it serves via a May 7 special election — similar to the Measure B initiative that failed on the June 5, 2012, Presidential Primary ballot.
Basic services will be even tougher to provide in coming years as a number of housing developments are scheduled to be constructed in the next few years, said Higgins Fire Chief Jerry Good.
The Great Recession that has constrained public agencies throughout the nation has affected the finances of Higgins Fire as well as the agency laid off a third of its staff last June, reducing the number of paid fully trained firefighters from 15 to nine.
“Fire protection in (South County) is weaker than it was,” said Good, who supervises an approximately $1.2 million annual budget.
The staff reduction resulted in the number of staff available per day (from six to four firefighters) to keep service running around the clock seven days a week. The reduction has also meant station closures.
Higgins Fire has three stations, and while it keeps Higgins Station 21 (the district’s flagship station at the intersection of Highway 49 and Combie Road) open permanently, it rotates monthly closures at its outlying posts — Dog Bar Station 22 at the intersection of Dog Bar Road and Morning Sun Lane and McCourtney Road Station 23 at the intersection of McCourtney and Lime Kiln roads.
Station closures increase response times — the average response time was six and half minutes prior to the July layoffs and has since spiked to 12 minutes — and leave residents vulnerable if two or more emergencies transpire simultaneously, Good said.
“Timing is crucial on medical aid calls. I mean we are talking about saving somebody’s life,” Good said. “On responses to structure fires, one of our main goals is to mitigate property damage and keep the fire as small as we can.”
Higgins Fire’s mission statement is to respond to medical emergencies and quell structure fires, while Cal Fire, which operates in the district, has the primary responsibility of preventing vegetation fires from spreading to the wildland. However, quick response to a structure fire is one of the best weapons against stopping wildland fires, Good said.
Station closures mean the department relies heavily on its 20-person volunteer pool, but those firefighters are not held to the same training standards as paid staff, and their ability to respond to incidents is dependent on their availability.
Furthermore, Higgins will rely more heavily on mutual aid from surrounding departments, such as Nevada County Consolidated Fire District and the Auburn Fire Department, but many of those departments have witnessed the same decline in revenues and must prioritize service within their respective jurisdictions.
Cal Fire, which dedicates resources to South County, only operates during the fire season, which begins in late spring and concludes in late autumn.
All of this comes at a time when new large-scale developments are blooming in many regions within the district.
“The growth down here is a sign of the times, and we have to adjust,” Good said.
Cascade Crossing, an 80-unit housing development, has begun site improvement, 70 residential lots and an associated golf course in the DarkHorse development are online and Rincon Del Rio, a 345-unit retirement community, was recently approved by the Nevada County Planning Commission.
“Of course these developments will impact us,” Good said. “It will be a significant issue for us.”
In 1989, the state of California passed Assembly Bill 1600, which requires developers to pay fees to defray the potential impacts to jurisdictional public services. However, development fees to fire agencies cannot be allocated to staff increases but, instead, must go to maintenance of fire stations or equipment purchases.
“We have plenty of fire engines and hoses, but we need the personnel to drive the engines,” Good said.
In order to address persistent staffing deficiencies, Good has begun negotiating with developers to arrive at an Operational Impact Fee.
“We study specifically how we think a housing development will impact us and arrive at a fee that can be used for personnel,” Good said.
Cascade Crossing has agreed to pay a fee for five years, and the fire district is currently in negotiations with Rincon del Rio to finalize a per-unit fee, Good said. The fire chief said a community that caters to senior citizens will likely require more emergency services, placing an additional burden on the department.
Higgins Fire started in 1977 as an all-volunteer district. In the mid-1980s, the district began to pay trained firefighters and has incrementally added staff as the community has grown at a rate of 17 percent per year, Good said.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
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