Other Voices: Chief’s Report from the North San Juan Fire Protection Summer 2007 Newsletter
We are now well into wildland fire season again. For NSJ Fire it began in March when we responded to three wildland fires totaling more than five acres. The lightning events of June 21 started a fire near Bear Trap Springs; reported early it was extinguished quickly.
During the following weeks of heavy smoke almost half of NSJ firefighters along with one engine and our water tender were out of county on fire assignments. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 49er Fire, Nevada County’s most destructive wildland event to date. Started in the NSJ Fire District near the intersection of Highway 49 and Birchville Road, the 49er Fire spread by strong September winds and destroyed hundreds of structures in Penn Valley and Rough & Ready.
One important lesson of this and other California fires is that the creation of defensible space and fire wise preparation around your home, rather than fire department resources, offer you the best hope for survival. NSJ Fire is much better prepared and equipped than it was in 1988, but all four of our engines will be able to protect only a handful of homes at one time in the event of a major fire.
Over the past 20 years, I have noted a few disappointments. Volunteer firefighters have subsidized fire protection in Nevada County for years. Yet there is still no fire leadership with vision to build the capacity of the rural fire service in Nevada County
beyond consolidating and converting volunteer stations into those with paid staff. And there is no plan to pay for it. In 1992 the Nevada County Board of Supervisors paid VSP Associates $60,000 for a study on fire department consolidation which noted the huge contribution of volunteer firefighters and made recommendations on how to preserve and protect this low cost resource. None of these recommendations, including some astoundingly simple and cost-free as “Local governments and local media should be encouraged to extol the importance of volunteers to the
community…” have been implemented. In 2005 the Nevada County Civil Grand Jury’s review of Fire Protection Districts recommended, “…that each member of the Nevada
County Board of Supervisors visit each of the FPDs in their district to better understand the challenges that these dedicated firefighters face every day.” Although the August 12, 2005, Board of Supervisor response to this recommendation stated, “This recommendation has been implemented,” our supervisor at that time never visited nor contacted NSJ Fire despite repeated invitation. We are in better touch with our current supervisor, but with little evidence to the contrary, it is easy to believe that supervisors, who may receive campaign contributions from a local of the International Association of Fire Fighters which represents paid firefighters, share the position of that union’s leadership that volunteer fire departments are “rival organizations” and that they too “do not represent or condone volunteer, part-time or paid on-call fire
fighters.” If this is not the case, I would welcome any statement of support for volunteer firefighters from any Nevada County supervisor or fire official. If volunteer firefighters are not to be supported, I believe constructive discussion of how to transition from volunteer to a paid fire service would be the right thing to do.
In 1992 there were well over 200 volunteer firefighters in western Nevada
County. Now there are fewer than 80 left – more than 20 still at North San Juan Fire. While communities across the USA face hard economic times and one nearby California city, which allocates 75% of its annual budget to firefighter and police salaries, is on the brink of bankruptcy, it is remarkable that there are still firefighters and EMT’s in North San Juan willing to serve their community for free and pay for their own gas too! In the end, local gratitude may be all that remains and it is much
appreciated. Thank you!
Boyd Johnson, Fire Chief
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