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Sonoma County's firefighting network differs from neighbors

  • Sonoma County Fire's Lakeville station in 2013. (KENT PORTER/ PD FILE)

Sonoma County's 15 rural volunteer firefighting companies blend old school coverage with modern methods.

It's not a unique model in the state, but it's also not common and it differs sharply from how neighboring counties provide county fire services.

The volunteer companies operate under the umbrella of Sonoma County's Fire and Emergency Services Department. Its $3.3 million firefighting budget supports insurance, training, equipment, maintenance and paid fire management in the county department, though each of the companies also have their own volunteer chiefs.

The overall budget for the department, which also handles hazardous materials, fire prevention and emergency services, is $9.2 million.

The model gives Sonoma County a volunteer firefighting force of about 220 responders -#8212; far below the stated goal of 300 volunteers.

The companies, aided by neighboring departments and districts that are volunteer and paid, are primarily responsible for protection and prevention across 680 square miles, or about 43 percent of the county.

The companies tend to cover some of the most rural and least populated areas -#8212; altogether just over 15,200 residents -#8212; with generally less property tax revenue to sustain independent operations.

But it is a cheaper operation than used in other counties, where funding and geographical challenges have also driven fire service decisions over the years.

Marin County has its own paid countywide department covering unincorporated areas spanning about 250 square miles, with responsibility for about 20,000 residents. Its overall budget is $20.5 million, including $3.5 million paid by Cal Fire to the county to cover areas of state jurisdiction.

Napa County, on the other hand, contracts with Cal Fire for coverage in the unincorporated area and Yountville, a region spanning about 720 square miles, with 29,000 residents. The department's overall budget is $12.6 million.

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