Sonoma County's school system, with 40 districts ranging in size from about a dozen students to several thousand, is a product of history and geography.

The same can be said of the county's fire protection network, which consists of 39 separate agencies -#8212; 15 volunteer companies, 19 independent districts and five municipal fire departments -#8212; augmented in many areas by Cal Fire, the state's wildland firefighting agency.

These fire departments have proud traditions, and they're closely identified with their respective communities, just as neighborhood schools are. Local post offices, too.

Most of the fire departments share something more -#8212; tight finances.

Among the volunteer departments, there's also a common shortage of manpower as more rural residents become commuters, working far from home and unable to respond at a moment's notice to calls for assistance.

Sonoma County's fire departments are grappling with those challenges, as Staff Writers Randi Rossmann and Brett Wilkison in a two-part report this week that detailed alternative fire protection models under discussion. The Board of Supervisors should assume responsibility for guiding this process.

One likely change is consolidation. While the county's far-flung school districts have resisted the idea that mergers might save money, some fire departments are embracing it.

"I think we need to quit fooling ourselves and realize the wave of the future is bigger instead of smaller," Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said. "We're all afraid of giving up control, giving up our chiefs' jobs. It's great to have that hometown feeling ... but we have to get realistic."

Baxman's west county district absorbed Jenner's fire department in the 1990s. Other mergers took place during the same time period, creating the Gold Ridge and Rancho Adobe fire districts and expanding the service areas of fire departments in greater Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley.

In 2011, the Rincon Valley and Windsor fire districts combined their management into the Sonoma County Central Fire Authority.

Now, three northern Sonoma County fire districts -#8212; Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Geyserville -#8212; and the volunteer fire company in Knights Valley are exploring a merger. A feasibility study is due in May.

At the same time, the volunteer fire department serving The Sea Ranch is exploring the possibility of forming an official district, and the Schell-Vista district is weighing annexation of more territory in the southeastern corner of the county.

In each instance, a major motivation is capturing more property tax dollars. The north county district alone stands to gain $1 million.

But any windfalls would come at the expense of other fire agencies, most notably volunteer companies around the county that currently receive that money.

A guiding principle for this process must be that residents in one part of the county aren't put at greater risk by mergers and annexations elsewhere.

The supervisors are best positioned to ensure that emergency responders remain available to help all Sonoma County residents on an equal basis.