Russian River fire district gets new chief

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Russian River firefighters have a new chief — one who’s based in Windsor.

Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine will serve as chief of the Russian River Fire Protection District, overseeing its 11 firefighters who cover 20 square miles that stretch along the Russian River between Forestville and Monte Rio.

Heine earlier this spring became chief of not only Windsor and Rincon Valley, but also the Bennett Valley and Mountain fire agencies as the four departments consolidated and took on a new name: Sonoma County Fire District.

With Heine serving as Russian River’s chief, it would give both agencies a chance to get to know each other better and act as a step toward possible consolidation, a move both sides are actively considering.

The Russian River district had been without a chief since late 2017, when Chief Max Ming was terminated without explanation after running the Russian River and Forestville fire agencies for six years.

Forestville’s fire board later promoted Dave Franceschi to chief, but Russian River’s board picked an unusual path: It decided to go without an official chief and instead have the department’s three fire captains share the job — for an additional stipend — as well as respond to calls.

Getting back to a one‑chief organization is welcome, said Russian River Fire Capt. Rob Cassady, who favors consolidation to improve services.

The county, which has about three dozen fire departments, many struggling financially and offering varying levels of service, has seen a push for merging fire agencies. Sonoma County supervisors have called for fewer but more efficient fire agencies.

“It’s definitely an exciting time for the fire service,” Cassady said.

Under a one‑year, $160,000 agreement, Sonoma County Fire will provide a chief, deputy chief and other administrative and financial services for the Russian River fire district, which Heine said is cheaper than hiring staff to fill those positions.

In a recent presentation to Russian River firefighters and their board, Heine said consolidating the districts would improve emergency services, such as by adding three more paramedic‑firefighters to the Russian River department. That would assure a paramedic is on board every time an engine leaves the station, and one remains in the district when an ambulance heads for a Santa Rosa hospital, neither of which happens now, Heine said.

Currently most residential property owners in the river district pay a $140 annual parcel tax for fire services. Should consolidation move forward, costs would increase to $182, a fee paid by most residential homeowners in the larger district. The additional money would help pay for some of the improvements.

Heine said he’s also spoken with Forestville and Bodega Bay fire officials interested in learning more about consolidation.

“We want to have conversations with other agencies interested in joining what we’re building. Or if not, to spur on their own consolidation considerations,” Heine said.

Neighboring Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman applauded the move to name Heine the Russian River chief, as well as the chief’s efforts to bring more departments under one administrative roof. Baxman has been pushing for other west county fire agencies to work together.

“He’s the spark plug we’ve needed. Now we’re heading in the right direction,” said Baxman, a longtime advocate for far fewer fire agencies. “It’s called progress.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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