Some plants and trees rely on fire to thrive. Without an occasional burn, there's no place in the forest for new growth, so seeds don't germinate.

This rejuvenation by wildfire is a natural process — and it could be a fitting analogy for the changing landscape of fire protection in Sonoma County.

The county's aging network of municipal fire departments, special districts and volunteer companies has its roots in the 19th century. Today, many are understaffed, underfunded and competing for limited resources.

To complete the analogy, these struggling departments must be transformed into a fully funded, fully functioning firefighting and emergency response force for an increasingly suburban county. That won't happen without strong leadership that, so far, appears to be missing.


; Four fire departments in northern Sonoma County are considering a consolidation that could capture $1 million a year in extra tax revenue. But the boost to their bottom line would come out of the pockets of volunteer fire departments in other parts of the county.

; In Bodega Bay, current and former fire protection district board members are at odds over a parcel tax measure on Tuesday's ballot that, at best, buys time to seek other revenue sources for a perennially cash-strapped fire department.

; A recall vote takes place Tuesday in the Russian River fire district which, as Staff Writer Mary Callahan reported, "has a history of political tumult, including a complete recall of the board in 1990, frequent board resignations and a revolving door through which more than a dozen fire chiefs have passed since the mid-1980s."

; A merger of the Windsor and Rincon Valley fire departments, which has been progressing over several years, is now on hold because Rincon Valley firefighters would rather become part of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, where the salary scale is more generous.

To be clear, combining the Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley fire departments might make financial and logistical sense. A north county fire department might, too. As for funding and staffing issues, Bodega Bay has some unique circumstances, but it's emblematic of the challenges facing small fire districts throughout the county. Finally, does anyone believe that political squabbles are peculiar to the Russian River district?

What's missing is any look at the big picture.

For starters, does Sonoma County still need 39 separate firefighting agencies? Are volunteer companies, most of them short-staffed for many years, still viable? Would residents be better served by a single department serving unincorporated areas and any interested cities? Would administrative savings from a single department, or several regional ones, be enough to address chronic staffing shortages?

Each of the departments has its own elected board of is under the jurisdiction of a city or county. Each has its own history and is understandably focused on its own responsibilities and its own exigencies.

But choices such as a north county consolidation will have a cascading effect on fire protection elsewhere, and public safety will be best served by seeding the future instead of propping up the past.