Lakeville volunteer firefighters from left, Sam Martinez, Tyler Sturm and Matt Terrill, greet one another prior to a drill at the Lakeville Fire house in the very rural Lakeville community south of Petaluma Tues. Dec. 17, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Future hazy for Sonoma County's firefighters

Sonoma County's complex rural firefighting network, much the same for decades, appears to be on the cusp of dramatic change, starting with efforts by three northern agencies that are considering merging into one sprawling district.

Fire and government officials are keenly watching the process involving departments in Geyserville, Cloverdale and Healdsburg, plus Knights Valley volunteers. Their consolidation would create a fire district covering about a third of Sonoma County, including the tax-lucrative Geysers geothermal fields.

Supporters of consolidation say it could enhance fire services and foreshadow a new model for rural fire protection in the county. It ultimately could reshape volunteer companies at the heart of many small communities, but government officials pledge it won't leave those areas unprotected.

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.

Facing a crossroads

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 -- the historic heart and soul of the small departments -- 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.

Still, McGuire admitted the north county's talks have caused a countywide ripple. He likened the north county's role in the process to a canary in the coal mine.

"I think it is time the county has a sincere discussion about the future of fire services," he said. "That means there are going to be some uncomfortable conversations."

Among a range of possible outcomes, some volunteer companies could be absorbed by larger neighbors in the short term. Over a longer period, the mergers could be broadened to form a smaller number of regional departments.

The county could decide to get out of firefighting altogether, or, perhaps years down the road, take the opposite, ambitious step of calling for one large county department.

One immediate challenge is that rural areas tend to have deep connections with their fire stations. In the same way that communities hold on tightly to their small school districts, giving up those firefighting identities can ruffle residents as well as firefighters.

"Every volunteer department has a lot of pride in their individual company," said Matt Epstein, the new chief of the Valley Ford volunteers. "All of us want to provide a better service for our community, and if that means consolidation, I'd be for it. I don't know if the county can afford that right now."

Differing views

Several of the county's fire chiefs and county officials see at least some levels of fire department consolidation as overdue and inevitable.

"We just can't keep going as usual. We have to make some economic decisions," said Ray Mulas, chief of Schell-Vista Fire Protection District, in the southeastern corner of the county.

"Over here, our talk is eventually we're all going to be one department," Mulas said, referring to the five firefighting agencies throughout the greater Sonoma Valley.

Mergers are complicated because they can involve reconciling different levels of tax funding for neighboring fire services. But Baxman, the Monte Rio chief, a longtime advocate of joining forces, said he sees it as the only way forward, citing districts' struggles with money, increased calls and fewer volunteers.

Not everybody sees the need for change.

Some of the county's volunteer fire chiefs defend their companies' abilities and extensive unpaid service to their communities, while praising the county's current efforts to bolster its volunteer network. With additional support, they say, they can provide even better service to rural residents.

"I'm pretty happy with the way things are," said longtime Bodega volunteer Chief Ron Albini, who recently oversaw construction of a new station for his company. "They need to support the volunteer fire companies and make sure we remain as viable as possible."

In the south county, Lakeville Chief Silva said he and neighboring volunteer companies, including San Antonio, already work closely together, making it unnecessary to merge.

"We're doing a lot for what we have and what the community as a whole is willing to pay for," Silva said. Lakeville, which covers 34 square miles, is next in line for a new fire station paid for by county funds.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said the volunteer fire companies are "essential to public safety" and "cost-effective."

Their shared struggles don't appear to have one single solution that would settle all questions about the future of county fire services, said Carrillo, who represents a west county region with six volunteer companies.

"What that (service) looks like, I don't know," he said. "I'm hopeful that successes we see in the short term will help drive what the system looks like in the long term."

What's county's role?

Some, including Baxman, have raised the option of forming a single countywide agency. Others, citing duplication of services and layers of management, have said the county should consider getting out of the firefighting business and instead help the volunteer companies merge with fire districts.

"They are a fire company without a firetruck," said a longtime local fire official who asked to withhold his name to speak candidly on a sensitive topic. He cited a half-dozen fire management positions in the central county fire office that aren't front-line responders. "The reality is they aren't performing any of those public safety responsibilities," the official said.

Others, including officials inside the department, reject those claims, saying their managerial oversight and leadership at the scene of fires are valuable parts of the current county fire services model. The 15 companies, they say, are the county's fire department.

"Sonoma County is doing it right," said Roberta MacIntyre, the assistant county fire chief.

Rabbitt, whose district has six volunteer companies, dismissed the possibility of wholesale changes happening anytime soon. But he acknowledged the many moving parts could force a decision about fire service countywide.

"Things are evolving, and we've been having to pick up the pieces," Rabbitt said. "It is pivotal, but at the same time, I don't think you'll find the board going in a direction that's not going to be accepted by all."

Changes percolating in other county corners, adding to the sense of a pending overhaul, include:

Along the southeastern county border, Schell-Vista fire officials are considering annexations, including Sonoma Raceway, now within the jurisdiction of Lakeville volunteers. The additional areas Schell-Vista is eyeing generate about $44,000 in gross tax revenue, more than half of it from the raceway. Net tax figures for the area -- after a state shift for educational funding -- were not available.

To the far northwest, volunteer fire officials at The Sea Ranch are considering formation of their own fire district, possibly encompassing a large swath of the northern coast of the Annapolis volunteer company. Sea Ranch currently generates more than $1 million in net tax revenue for county fire services. About 70 percent of that money stays with the community to pay for its ongoing contract with Cal Fire for around-the-clock coverage. The remainder goes to the shared budget for county volunteer companies.

A new district could stake a claim to the entirety of the Sea Ranch tax revenue for fire services.

"We don't have any political agenda or bad feelings toward (the county)," said Mike Scott, chief of the Sea Ranch volunteers. "We just want to make sure we're providing the best services we can for the money Sea Ranch is paying."

The Sonoma County department itself is in the midst of a turnover at the top, with a new chief brought on last month from outside the area.

"I'm not here to mess up anything that's going right," said Al Terrell, the incoming chief.

But Terrell supports regional consolidations where they can eliminate service duplications in a concentrated area.

"The reality is, in certain areas, depending on the needs of the community, consolidation has to be a consideration," he said.

The north county consolidation would take in areas -- including The Geysers -- that generate more than $1 million in net tax revenue for county fire service.

All together, the amount of money at stake from the various possible financial changes rises to two-thirds of the county's annual $3.3 million firefighting budget.

"If these consolidations happen and this money goes away, it's a problem for county fire. But county fire already has a problem of being underfunded," said Epstein, Valley Ford's volunteer chief. "It's going to force people to address an issue that's already there."

The Sea Ranch, north county and Schell-Vista fire officials are prepared to argue that the money should go with the agency providing the fire service. That's historically been the decision in every recent case in which fire entities have merged or expanded, said Brian Elliott, Cloverdale's former chief and a retired Santa Rosa fire captain. Elliott is a consultant for five agencies in financial talks with the county.

"I don't want this to be an argument at all," Elliott said. "This is about service delivery and how we need to fund it."

He said the fundamental fire services question for county supervisors remains: "Are you in the game or are you out of the game?"

Fire chiefs said they are looking for the answer.

"All of us need to know what the direction of county fire is," said Steve Adams, Healdsburg's fire chief. "We need to have a road map. At the end, what is it we want to look like?"

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@ and Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@

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