Placer County officials are looking to use an old-school approach to firefighting to keep a North Auburn station open: volunteers.
If the station can't be kept open, nearby residents will face a sharp increase in response times and insurance premiums, said Rui Cunha, the county assistant director for emergency services.
"Closing that station will have an impact on service levels, no doubt about it," said Cunha.
The station, at 9305 Wise Road in Ophir, is set to close Jan. 1. The district's only other station is at 11645 Atwood Road, about five miles away. Residents living within a mile and a half of the Wise Road station could see their response times balloon from four minutes to 14 minutes after it's closed, Cunha said.
"It's the difference between being able to hold a fire to one room to arriving and having the house fully engulfed in fire," he said.
In addition to seeking volunteers, the county has applied for a federal grant that would fund the two-person station for two years.
After declining property tax revenue put the district in the red, officials asked residents this year to approve a $40 annual parcel tax increase, but the proposal was soundly voted down in June.
Not counting state and federal fire resources, more than a dozen distinct districts provide fire protection and emergency response services to Placer County residents. Each district has its own assessment level, set prior to the passage of Proposition 13.
Cunha said officials did what they could to educate voters, and he said he believes residents knew the ramifications of the vote. The decision was made to keep the busier of the district's two stations open at full staffing, rather than have both limp along.
"The Ophir station will still be there, the equipment will still be there, what we won't have is staffing," Cuhna said.
That is where volunteers could come in.
Volunteers are already in use at six Placer County fire stations, chiefly in rural areas. In some cases, they operate stations independent of paid firefighters. In other cases, they supplement paid staffers.
"We receive the exact same training that paid firefighters get," said Warren Bostic, who helped create a volunteer fire station outside of Lincoln 31 years ago and has been volunteering since.
Placer County officials said that while finding volunteer firefighters to keep the Ophir station open is the current priority, the need extends across the entire mishmash of county fire districts.
In part because of the steep training demands, Bostic said, it's gotten harder to find good volunteers. He added that with so many people working in a different community from the one in which they live, volunteers for daytime needs are in short supply.
After the required training and a probationary period, volunteers are given pagers and are allowed to respond to fires or other emergencies.
Bostic said unlike the old days, when it was more "neighbors helping neighbors," many of the volunteers are young firefighters trying to work their way into a paid job.
In most cases, volunteers don't take the lead in fire suppression but lend support by bringing the water truck, backing up regulars and assisting in the post-fire mop-up.
And having a volunteer-run station doesn't guarantee quicker response times. Unless volunteers elect to create office hours to keep the station manned, their response times are highly variable, Cunha said.
"With a volunteer force, some days their response times are good and sometimes not so good," he said. "It is absolutely better than no station at all."
Steve Spindler, who volunteers as a firefighter when not working for Hewlett-Packard, said he finds it rewarding, even if he doesn't get the high-profile jobs.
"We may not get all the glory of squirting water on the big fires, but we are there to backfill," Spindler said.