Despite drought conditions that have elevated wildfire risks this year, Placer County officials are considering whether to shutter one rural fire station and eliminate several positions to save money as it faces higher state firefighting costs.
Placer County contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to staff its engines and stations in a vast fire protection area that spans from the Sacramento County line to Emigrant Gap in the Sierra Nevada. Other parts of the county are governed separately by independent fire districts and municipal agencies.
The 66 Cal Fire firefighters that serve Placer County are projected to cost $8.89 million in the current fiscal year. Cal Fire has raised its rate by 21 percent to $10.74 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1, a hike Placer officials have criticized as “unsustainable.”
“This is called living beyond your means,” said John McEldowney, program manager for the Office of Emergency Services in Placer County. “You can do it for a while, but unless you are the federal government and can print money, it’s going to come back to bite you.”
George Morris III, chief of the Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit of Cal Fire, said the hike covers increases in retirement contributions, medical benefits, and a 4 percent raise negotiated between the firefighters’ union and the state. Cal Fire is also raising an administration fee it imposes on local jurisdictions that contract with the state agency.
“It’s a lot to take on in one fiscal year, so we understand the challenges with that,” Morris said, adding that firefighters haven’t received a raise in about eight years.
Placer County’s firefighting budget comes largely from “zone of benefit” fees that are paid by residents in a specific area. The county also subsidizes the budget with $1.1 million from the general fund.
Firefighter union officials have called on the county to come up with the additional $1.84 million, saying it is a small price to pay in a historic drought.
“Moments can mean the difference between life and death,” said Fred Lopez, chapter director of the Cal Fire Local 2881, which represents firefighters in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit.
The station considered for closure is located in the community of Ophir, about 5 miles west of Auburn. The Ophir station is regularly staffed by two firefighters and serves roughly 2,300 residents, according to Clint Brown, the station’s fire engineer.
Brown grew up in Penryn and has worked in Placer County his entire 27-year fire career. Ophir, he said, has a history of fires, dating to the 1800s.
While McEldowney can make recommendations on reductions, the decision ultimately rests with the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to take up the budget in June.
McEldowney emphasized that the county has made no decision on the reductions, and officials continue to explore all possible options. He said closing the Ophir station made sense because of the small number of calls there.
Last year, Ophir received 322 calls compared with 3,209 calls for nearby Atwood, the county’s busiest station in the major population center of north Auburn. The two stations are 10 minutes apart.
The Ophir station had been on the chopping block in 2012 because the benefit zone wasn’t generating enough money to sustain the facility. Residents there pay $48 a year, the lowest fire fee in the county.
Voters rejected a ballot measure to raise the fee and keep the station open in 2012. That measure came soon after Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers imposed an annual fire prevention fee on rural property owners in California.
“The voters essentially decided not to fund fire service at the level it was at,” McEldowney said.
The station was eventually saved at the last minute by a $1.19 million federal grant spread over two years.
Supervisor Jim Holmes, who represents Ophir, said the station’s closure would trigger a domino effect on the surrounding communities. Holmes also represents Penryn, Newcastle, Loomis, Rocklin and north Auburn.
The longtime supervisor declined to say how the shortfall should be funded but said it is important to maintain current service levels.
“If there’s nobody in Ophir, the response time is going to be extended,” he said. “It’s too bad we’re having funding shortfalls, but public safety is one of our No. 1 concerns. We’re going to need all the help we can get.”