Sonoma County authorizes $9 million to advance fire agency consolidations, affecting Bodega Bay, 9 volunteer companies
Sonoma County’s fire district consolidation efforts reached a milestone Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a series of tax exchange and revenue sharing agreements and committed $9 million to support streamlined fire services across a wide swath of the unincorporated area.
The board’s vote advanced mergers affecting three general areas: along the coast from Bodega Bay to Fort Ross; further inland along a corridor stretching from Lakeville in the south to Camp Meeker west of Guerneville; and on the county’s northern end near The Geysers and Dry Creek Valley.
The series of moves will further reduce the number of districts covering Sonoma County and its cities to 23, down from the 43 operating in 2014 when the county began pursuing consolidation.
“That’s significant,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “I‘m so happy that we’re able to bring it over the finish line today.”
The board’s action Tuesday is one of the most significant in its now eight-year effort to overhaul a highly decentralized fire agency network that dated back a century or more, to a time when the county was mostly rural and largely covered by volunteer companies and independent districts.
Outside of cities, many have struggled to meet rising equipment and labor costs, tougher training standards and, increasingly, the demands of a more volatile, year-round wildfire season that has repeatedly battered Sonoma County with catastrophic blazes in the past five years.
Tuesday’s approval by the Board of Supervisors includes these consolidation efforts: Sonoma County Fire District taking in Bodega Bay Fire Protection District; North Sonoma County Fire Protection District taking over The Geysers and Dry Creek/Sotoyome areas; and Gold Ridge Fire Protection District annexing volunteer fire companies in Fort Ross, Camp Meeker, Bloomfield, Bodega, Valley Ford, Two Rock, San Antonio, Wilmar and Lakeville.
“It has been thousands of hours of work and a true labor of love,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who along with Rabbitt and Supervisor James Gore represent districts with a large number of the affected agencies. “It’s not a legal responsibility but it is a moral responsibility.”
Each consolidation is in a different stage and will ultimately require approval from the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which governs boundaries for tax-supported public entities.
Gold Ridge’s planned expansion takes in most of the remaining volunteer companies in the county. In 2014, there were 15.
Bodega Bay’s financially troubled fire agency tried to secure LAFCO approval about 2.5 years ago but the effort was delayed due to a funding shortage. The effort will restart now that the Board of Supervisors approved seed funding. Consolidation could be finalized by July 1 if all goes according to plan.
“That means we’ll be all finished with the formal process and Bodega Bay will be another station in Sonoma County Fire District,” said Bodega Bay Fire Protection District Assistant Fire Chief Steve Herzberg. “We’ll be one agency, not two. We will be staffed properly and we will be one set of one board and one command structure.”
That merger alone has been about seven years in the making and representatives from the Bodega Bay and the fast-growing Sonoma County Fire District approved terms in July.
The Sonoma County Fire District will now stretch from Bodega Bay along the lower Russian River into Windsor, forming a horseshoe around Santa Rosa, incorporating what was formerly Central Fire and Rincon Valley fire.
The Sonoma County Fire District’s annual budget is $23.6 million and the department has 26 full-time firefighters, 14 of which are also paramedics, according to the district’s website.
Bodega Bay currently has 12 full-time firefighters and paramedics but that number should expand to 15 once consolidation is completed. That will allow five crew members per shift; two per ambulance and three per fire engine.
Wildfires are rare along the coast and consolidation supporters stressed Bodega Bay’s crew mostly handle emergency calls involving tourists.
“In Bodega Bay, depending on how you count it, well above 85 percent of our calls are medical or rescue,” Herzberg said.
Bodega Bay has been cash strapped for years and had looked toward last year’s proposed Measure B transient occupancy tax increase for assistance. It would have raised about $2.7 million annually for fire services, as well as struggling schools in west county.
Following Measure B’s failure, the county brought in consultants to study whether voters would support a future fire tax. Tuesday, those consultants advised the board not to pursue a fire tax this year as their polling found support among voters came up just shy of the two-thirds threshold necessary to pass.