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End of an era for Roseland Fire, as Santa Rosa takes over and charts station move

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After more than six decades in existence, the Roseland Fire Protection District, an early training ground for some of Sonoma County’s veteran fire leaders, is no more.

The district, among the smallest by area in Sonoma County and a largely administrative entity for the past three decades, dated to the 1950s, when residents on Santa Rosa’s southwestern edge decided to tax themselves to fund local fire protection for hundreds of homes.

It remained a small department even at its peak, with just two stations and covering just under 3 square miles. But Jack Piccinini, who rose to assistant fire chief in Santa Rosa after starting with the Roseland district while a teenager, recalled a model firefighting force that once served big hotels and blue-collar blocks alike. Roseland taxpayers were willing to fund top-notch fire protection, he said.

“We had a high level of pride, starting at the board of directors all the way down through the paid staff and volunteers,” Piccinini said. “There was a real strong sense of community there, despite the fact that times were changing.”

Before Santa Rosa started annexing bits and pieces of Roseland and south Santa Rosa, Roseland firefighters were responsible for calls to much of the city’s old south side. Santa Rosa would eventually encircle the district and the county-governed area it served, a neighborhood of some 7,000 people when it was formally folded into the city less than two years ago.

The initial takeover by Santa Rosa Fire Department came much earlier, in 1983, meaning the portion of property taxes that Roseland property owners pay for fire services long has gone to fund a contract with the city. It covers fire, emergency medical, rescue and hazmat services.

Last week, the Roseland district’s dissolution was made complete, with the vote of a local government commission that simultaneously transfered its remaining financial reserves and budget to the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

“It’s going to fly under anybody’s radar,” Piccinini said, because Roseland hasn’t managed its own fire operations for so long.

Reminiscing on old days

He recalled how the department started in the years after World War II to take over fire and emergency services from Cal Fire, the state agency. The local firefighters built the cinder-block station at 830 Burbank Ave. in the 1950s, replacing a previous firefighting outpost that Piccinini referred to as a “tin shed.”

The current station’s early days were particularly notable for the “huge, extremely loud,” fog horn that would notify the community of emergency callouts, Piccinini said.

Ike Darling, 93, remembers that horn. An early volunteer and former truck driver, he started driving a Roseland fire engine sometime around 1950, likely before the formal creation of the Roseland fire district. Darling said he joined after calling the wrong number for the firehouse about a week after moving to Roseland and getting chewed out by a firefighter.

“You bought that house, you’re gonna live there. You might as well join,” the firefighter told Darling.

“We ran a pretty tight, good organization there,” Darling said.

He recalled how the department raised money to buy an old Army truck and fashioned it into a 1,000-gallon water tender. He noted that he saw a lot of inexplicable fire-related human behavior in more than three decades of fire protection service. Responding to a car fire once on Santa Rosa Avenue, the vehicle’s owner said “Let it burn, let it burn. It ain’t working anyway.” Another time, he witnessed a fire that sparked after a motorcycle mechanic’s gasoline-soaked clothes were tossed into a washing machine, sending off fumes that caused a blaze in the garage.

“You see many different fires that you wouldn’t dream about — people doing stupid things,” he said.

The Roseland department started as an all-volunteer firefighting force at that one station, eventually growing to add paid staff and a second fire station on Santa Rosa Avenue. Santa Rosa annexed bits and pieces for years before “going for the throat” and incorporating the tax-revenue-rich land along Corby Avenue that housed numerous car dealerships, Piccinini said. That set the groundwork for Santa Rosa to take over fire protection services in Roseland.

Starting a new chapter

The district’s dissolution comes in a pronounced, multi-year push by fire officials and county authorities to consolidate and modernize the county’s still disparate and outdated firefighting network. The latest merger came last week, on the same day Roseland’s district was dissolved. It resulted in the county’s newest firefighting agency, the Sonoma County Fire District, formed from several smaller fire departments that served Rincon Valley, Windsor, the Mountain district in the hills north of Santa Rosa, and Bennett Valley.

For Roseland, the final, logical step was to go with Santa Rosa after the city annexed the balance of the neighborhood in November 2017, leaving the tax district without the land base and funding to serve its remaining territory.

For the Santa Rosa Fire Department, the move brings an infusion of cold-hard cash — $3 million from Roseland’s reserves — earmarked for the construction of a new station, said Deputy Fire Chief Scott Westrope. The department is looking to move further south and closer to Highway 101 from the small, aging Burbank Avenue station.

The city aims to find a site near the intersection of Hearn and Dutton avenues, buy the property, and build a station expected to cost at least $7.5 million, Westrope said. That shift would improve emergency responses to the southeast and south-central Santa Rosa — a goal for fire officials reacting to new development and expecting more growth there while lacking funding for a new southeast station near Petaluma Hill and Kawana Springs roads.

“And with the way the community’s changed,” Westrope said, “it may be beneficial to move it even further south.”

Look for new station

Santa Rosa firefighters have answered calls in the Roseland district for over three decades. For most Roseland residents, the district’s dissolution means no change in service. There’s not expected to be a significant shift in taxation, either.

But Santa Rosa’s plan to locate a new station nearer Hearn and Dutton avenues is also anticipated to lead to slower response times along Sebastopol Road, a key Roseland artery and cultural hub.

The City Council last May unanimously approved the fire department’s plans to seek the new station after reviewing analyses indicating average response times would rise for calls on Sebastopol Road between Stony Point and Dutton while dramatically improving service along Santa Rosa Avenue.

Then-Mayor Chris Coursey acknowledged that there would be winners and losers as a result of moving the station to the southeast, but Councilwoman Julie Combs questioned the logic of decreasing fire service in an area targeted for new housing, including the 175 apartments included in the planned Roseland Village Neighborhood Center.

“I guess I’m concerned both about today and about the new red zone in an area that I think we are focusing on for development,” she said. “I guess what we’re doing is the best we can with what we’ve got.”

Station location

Fire officials recorded only two people attending a neighborhood discussion about the future of the Roseland fire station prior to the council meeting last May. Only one member of the public showed up to comment before the City Council on the proposed station move.

Asked for her thoughts about the fire department’s plans, Stephanie Manieri, a Santa Rosa City Schools trustee and Roseland resident, was concerned about how little she had heard about it, other than being aware that “some sort” of change was in the works. She said it was “partly our fault for not getting engaged.”

She also questioned whether traffic flows at Hearn and Dutton would be sufficient for a fire station in that area, pointing to a new development featuring dozens of single-family homes was being built a few blocks north on Dutton and worrying that roads there were “not wide enough.”

“For me, the concern would be the infrastructure,” she said.

Any move from the current station is years away. The present building may be re-purposed, with ideas that include a firefighting museum or housing for homeless people, but “there is no near or mid-term plan for it other than remaining Fire Station 8,” Westrope said.

Change in service

Some county residents on the outskirts of southwest Santa Rosa will experience a change in service, as well as a sharp rise in how much they pay for firefighting coverage.

A small segment of homes covered by the Roseland Fire Protection District remained outside city limits after Santa Rosa annexed the county island in 2017. Mark Bramfitt, executive director of the Local Area Formation Committee, which oversees government service boundaries, said about 200 county parcels that were covered by the Rincon Valley district after the annexation will be folded into the new Sonoma County Fire District and be subject to a roughly $180 parcel tax.

Though the owners of the properties never had a chance to vote on that tax directly, Bramfitt noted that they could have filed protest votes against the dissolution of the Roseland district. Fewer than 2 percent of the landowners and voters in the former Roseland district submitted protest votes, he said.

The old firefighters know that Roseland’s local firefighting days are long passed. Still, they hold on to the memory of their once-proud corps.

“I chuckle in comparison to today,” said Piccinini, “but we always thought like we were on the cutting edge in Sonoma County.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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