Sonoma County's existing patchwork of fire services is fraying at the seams. The complex network includes the county's 15 volunteer fire companies, protecting more than 15,000 people in the least populated areas, plus 19 independent fire districts and five city departments. The system faces competition for meager funding, operational inefficiencies and jockeying by some agencies anxious to protect their turf.
For some of those reasons, the north county move is welcomed by a number of local fire service veterans.
"I think we need to quit fooling ourselves and realize the wave of the future is bigger instead of smaller," said longtime Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, a proponent of consolidation whose district absorbed Jenner firefighters years ago. "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."
A north county consolidation, plus moves considered by other fire entities around the county, could eliminate a handful of jobs and exacerbate what is already a chronic funding struggle for many rural fire departments.
At stake is property-tax revenue that represents more than two-thirds of the $3.3 million operating budget that supports the county's 15 volunteer fire companies.
"There are a lot of points of view and thoughts on how what we're doing could be a game-changer," said Marshall Turbeville, chief of the Geyserville Fire Protection District.
The Board of Supervisors has said it wants to take a hard look at how Sonoma County provides fire services. But the board could be forced to more quickly consider a significant overhaul if even a partial redistribution of that tax money occurs.
The issue has prompted a flurry of meetings and closed-door conversations in recent months, with volunteer chiefs especially concerned about the lasting impact on their companies, overseen by the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department.
Lakeville Volunteer Fire Chief Nick Silva said a funding shift that disadvantages volunteer county companies means many "would probably cease to exist."
"We wouldn't be able to support ourselves" without additional money from the county, Silva said.
The rumbling of change comes at a critical time for rural fire services, often the front line of local government for small, far-flung communities.
In addition to the funding and operational woes, demographic changes have thinned the ranks of volunteers -#8212; the historic heart and soul of the small departments -#8212; as rural areas draw aging residents or commuters unable to fill roles that demand significant training and time.
"It's that neighbor- helping-neighbor commitment that makes fire protection in the county work," said Mark Aston, the recently retired county fire chief. "That's all wonderful and good. However, it starts to bring up questions of economy of scale, effectiveness and efficiencies. They're making a penny stretch into a dime, so efficiencies are already there. But there also are inefficiencies."
Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the north county, said any immediate changes will evolve over the next one to two years. Any funding shifts would be subject to negotiation, he stressed.
Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said all options were on the table but that no outcome should harm fire service for any particular area. "We can't have any holes in the county that aren't being served," he said.