We have all seen the smoke from recent fires and unfortunately a number of homes have been destroyed. Those families’ lives will be changed forever. They are in my prayers.
Could this tragedy have been prevented, I do not know. I do know it has left my wife and I with a very unsettled feeling, not wanting to leave our home waiting for a call to evacuate, do we pack up now, did we clear enough brush, is everything perfect, will our house survive? Then there is a feeling that it’s not that close, it won’t get us and for just a moment we feel better.
We have been playing out this scenario every summer for years and we accept this as the price for living in this mountain community.
Our firefighting system is divided into three basic parts. The U.S. Forest Service is designed and poised to protect federal land, Cal Fire poised to protect the rest of the state where cities and counties do not have their own resources, and a county owned fire department which the county has contracted with Cal Fire to provide service.
So how does this all work? Firefighting is a seasonal operation and swells in the summer. USFS and Cal Fire (state protection), which Madera County has no control over, staffs up their stations and simply by default, through mutual aid they respond to fires in our community. Not much changes for our county owned stations. Staffing numbers remain sparse and we rely on volunteers to answer the bell. Most stations are ‘unmanned’ and don’t even have sleeping quarters. When you see some smoke nearby know it is probably Cal Fire, the state responders showing up with a fill in by county contract crews and maybe some volunteers. Generally during the summer the total number of Cal Fire firefighters in stations ready to respond countywide is about 40 people. In the winter is may be only about a dozen.
We all know the best way to stop a fire is to get at it quick before it becomes a monster. Right now when a fire is reported about half the county is dispatched and you know some resources may be 30-45 minutes away, some coming from Mariposa and Fresno County. We simply do not have enough people locally. This is the county’s fault.
For decades the county has talked about the shortage of volunteers but only spends about $5 million dollars a year, a number that has barely changed.
The Board of Supervisors is fully and totally responsible for the amount of money spent on firefighting. For the last couple of years they voted a resolution declaring an emergency due to the dead trees. At a recent workshop they declared a priority to put more money into the fire department, but when the budget was approved only a few hundred thousand dollars was added to replace old fire trucks, but no more staff. A budget revenue increase of over $20 million dollars was swallowed by all the county departments - candy to a bureaucrat. Citizens did not pass Measure L, but the message was clear from the opposition. Make the fire department a priority. We already pay taxes for this basic service. It feels like it’s revenge on the county’s part for not allowing more funding.
At a community meeting held to talk about the Railroad Fire, 400 people attended, it was standing room only. This was a great showing of concern by our community.
I am terribly concerned that our county leaders will let us down as they bet the future of our community on an inadequate county fire department. Imagine a hot summer night with a wind coming from the west blowing up the canyons to the forest. A house on the northern edge of YLP against the wilderness catches fire. Just a small crew shows up and is immediately overwhelmed, the house is gone and the fire is now moving up the hill. There are no air tankers because it is dark. Additional fire crews are 20-45 minutes away. In just an hour the fire is heading for downtown Coarsegold, and in another hour Deadwood is ablaze. You can write up such a scenario for any community, and it has happened in the past. Remember the Harlow Fire that claimed hundreds of homes. This actually happens several times in the state every summer as a small fire gets away and eats entire communities.
How do we stop a small fire? I called a big fire a “monster,” but the “monster” is our county leaders that refuse to fund the county’s fire department with adequate resources. I estimate the department needs another $15 million dollars to staff every station with four people 24/7/365. That could add about 50-60 more firefighters. That includes building new stations over five years and replacing the very old fire engines. This is very doable. No more excuses, let’s not play with fire.
Note: Marc Sobel is running against Tom Wheeler for the seat of Madera County District 5 Supervisor in the June 2018 election.