Knights Valley resident Bud Pochini runs his welding business, owns a Christmas tree farm and helps coach high school softball. And for the past 25 years, he has been a mainstay of the Knights Valley Fire Co. volunteers.
Fallen trees, neighbors’ medical emergencies, car crashes. Some of the calls are so grim the assistant fire chief wonders why he sticks with it.
The simple answer is Pochini is one of only four remaining Knights Valley Fire volunteers, covering all types of emergency calls in a 54-square-mile area.
“Who else would do it?” he asked.
Pochini, 54, is among an estimated 100 active volunteer firefighters in Sonoma County’s 11 remaining companies, which are overseen by the county’s administrative fire agency. They cover 600 square miles — a third of the unincorporated county — and in 2016 fielded 1,200 emergency calls.
The companies, down from 14 last year, have been a proud force in local firefighting history stretching back 150 years and remain an integral part of the emergency response network in the county’s rural areas.
The volunteer rosters today include the grown children of career firefighters and ranchers, current firefighters, high school students and retirees.
But lack of funding and waning interest in volunteer fire service — fewer residents are willing or able to commit to the rigorous training and unpredictable time demands — are leading many of the county’s volunteer fire departments toward obsolescence.
“We’re in so much jeopardy,” said Knights Valley board member Steve Gould, referring to the volunteer network. “We can’t go away, but we are.”
Lengthy response times, deteriorating stations and aging equipment — with insufficient county money to make upgrades — along with thinning emergency coverage have emerged as chronic challenges testing the ability of many volunteer companies to carry out their duties and sustain operations.
In search of a solution, fire and county officials have launched efforts that could shake up the fire services landscape, leaving in question not only the future of a number of fire agencies, but also the county’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services.
“There have been political decisions made over 30 years that benefited some fire companies and thrown other ones in the dirt. That is not the way to run public safety,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said. He put a lot of blame on the county, but also pointed to infighting among fire service leaders.
For so long, there has been “no clear path forward, just warring factions,” Gore said, comparing fractious chiefs to “warlords.”
Winds of change afoot
Yet while chiefs have been reluctant in years past to change, digging in to protect turf, those attitudes have eased as the antiquated system has developed clearer cracks.
“We have come to terms. It’s time for us to evolve,” said Sonoma County Fire Chief Al Terrell, who oversees the volunteer companies.
“They’re concerned. They could become part of this or that or they could go away,” Terrell said. Big moves for the volunteer companies could trigger change for his department as well.
Currently, from one end of the county to the other, response gaps are filled more and more by Cal Fire, neighboring cities and fire districts with stations staffed by paid firefighters. Some of those outfits also face financial, equipment and staffing struggles.