It took only a few moments for the wood-shingled roof to erupt in flames.
It was July 4, 2011, a searing hot afternoon. Someone was shooting off bottle rockets near Glenn Manor, a Rohnert Park apartment complex. At least one hit the roof of a two-story apartment building, igniting a blaze that left 32 residents homeless and caused $1 million in damage.
Firefighters from seven agencies raced to protect adjacent apartments and put out the flames. Back at their stations, Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley firefighters told their chiefs they had serious concerns about how Rohnert Park's Public Safety Department had managed the potentially deadly event.
They voiced fears — echoed recently by other firefighters — that Rohnert Park public safety officers lack the experience, training and confidence to manage and fight fires as effectively as they should.
Such factors, officials at other departments say, mean their agencies often carry much of the burden at blazes in Rohnert Park, one of the few cities in the state whose officers fight both crime and fires.
To ensure the safety of their personnel, Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley fire chiefs have taken the highly unusual step of sending a battalion chief — a senior firefighter — when crews are called to Rohnert Park.
"There are definite concerns from our personnel on the organization of their fire program and the use of their resources," said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Mark McCormick.
In the tight-knit fraternity of firefighters, whose members are loath to publicly criticize one another, the responses represent a startling mistrust of Rohnert Park's ability to fight fires.
Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Brian Masterson flatly rejected the criticisms,<NO1><NO> saying data commonly used to assess a fire department's performance show no evidence of problems.
"Let's look at the last four years of fires," he said. "How many have we had? Have there been any significant injuries either to citizens or firefighters, both Rohnert Park Public Safety or outlying agencies? Has there been any major damage to buildings, to where the structure burned to the foundation? The answer is no."
He displayed a report issued earlier this year that indicated his fire division's response times and results are equivalent to or better than average, when compared to similar-sized cities nationwide.
"You have to look at the proof," he said. "If we're doing a poor job, then I think you would see lawsuits, you would see hue and cry from the citizens. That's not the case."
Rohnert Park is one of fewer than five of California's 478 cities where police officers double as firefighters. The aim is to reduce the cost of providing police and fire services, but also to have a deeper bench to throw at either a significant fire or crime.
"We're maximizing limited tax dollars; we're providing good police and fire service — and looking at the performance measurements ... compare our statistics with the other big cities and we're right in there," Masterson said.
<NO1><NO>Fire departments routinely assist their neighbors, often by written agreement. But neighboring officials say they provide Rohnert Park with more help than the city's fire division provides in return.
"We fulfill positions on their fires they would not fulfill on our fires," said Herb Wandel, a Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District battalion chief who frequently supervises at Rohnert Park fires.