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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.

Napa County has two dedicated sources of funding for its fire service, a watershed tax and a structure protection tax, both paid on the property tax bill. The county supports nine volunteer companies.

"There are always challenges when you mix career and volunteer firefighters," said Scott Upton, the Napa County fire chief. "But I think we have a good system here. It's working well."

Fire officials say the hybrid approach, offering paid and volunteer ranks, suits rural areas with lower call volumes.

"My opinion is, for the taxpayer, that model works the best," said Eric Hoffmann, Cal Fire unit chief for Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Solano, Colusa and Yolo counties. "It's almost impossible to afford a full-time paid response in a county that is not fully urbanized."

Volunteer firefighters throughout Sonoma County have been rushing to their neighbor's aid for well over a century.

Throughout the years fire coverage in some areas settled into more organized fire districts -#8212; still primarily staffed by volunteers -#8212; and city departments.

For those rural communities that held onto their all-volunteer companies, it's gotten harder and harder to keep up with rising costs and mandated safety regulations.

Multiple studies dating as far back as the 1970s have looked at consolidating fire services in different parts of the county. Many of the districts now in existence were once volunteer companies.

Sonoma County centralized management of its remaining volunteer companies in 1993. The move formed a single service area for the participating rural communities and dedicated a portion of the property tax -#8212; on average about 7 cents on the collected dollar, before a state shift for education funding -#8212; to fire protection.

The companies get $5,000 a year each from the shared budget overseen by Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services and $50 per response. That translates into less than $10,000 for most of the companies.

The assistance with insurance, equipment, maintenance and training is not separately accounted for each company.

In his last year on the job, Mark Aston, the recently retired county fire chief, pushed the Board of Supervisors for more money for the volunteers.

While that request wasn't successful, he was able to secure capital funds for two new fire stations -#8212; in Annapolis and Lakeville -#8212; helping to solidify his support of the volunteer companies.

"It's not like the old days. Nobody is running around with 20-year-old gear," said Matt Epstein, chief of the Valley Ford volunteers. "We have brand new turnouts, breathing apparatus ... The county does a real good job of keeping our personnel safe."

Increasingly, however, the volunteers have to bolster their budgets with a growing number of fundraisers, known on the fire line as the three 'Bs' -#8212; breakfasts, barbecues and bake sales. Those efforts struggle to keep pace with the rising cost of firefighting, including ever-tighter training standards and expensive equipment.

"There aren't enough pancakes to flip in the world" to pay for expenses such as a large fire engine, said Lakeville volunteer Chief Nick Silva, voicing support for the county's management of the volunteer companies. The county recently gave Lakeville volunteers a new $500,000-plus fire engine, paid for with a grant and county funds.

This month the county acquired two new, small engines at $180,000 each for Camp Meeker and Mayacamas volunteer companies. The vehicles were paid for with grant money and out of county firefighting funds.

A third purchase up for approval Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors would secure a used engine for San Antonio's volunteers, at a cost of $76,125.

Assistant County Fire Chief Roberta MacIntyre, a veteran of the department, acknowledged the money concerns, calling the volunteer companies "woefully underfunded."

But she also defended the county's model, saying its volunteer companies were far better off under the county's centralized command and administration than volunteer companies in some of Northern California's more rural counties, where they survive strictly on fundraisers and grants.

"We're providing funding for them as best we can," MacIntyre said. "It's very difficult to meet all of their needs with the funding streams we have."

(You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or at brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)