Negotiating one of La Habra Heights' steep canyon roads in his four-wheel-drive pickup, interim Fire Chief Robert C. Wilson stops at a dusty bend where the pass narrows.
"There's no way in hell (a city) fire engine is getting through there," Wilson says, "And there's roads like this all over the Heights."
Wilson said the Fire Department's three fire engines, designed for the flatlands, are too wide and don't have enough power to properly navigate the city's steep, narrow roads.
He also said the trucks are unreliable because of mechanical problems brought on by years of inadequate maintenance in the east Los Angeles County city just north of the Orange County line.
The trucks' condition is a key concern in a city that relies on the Fire Department to respond to most emergencies, such as car accidents and heart attacks, in addition to fires.
Last year, the department responded to 420 calls--100 for fires, Wilson said.
"If one truck breaks down, we lose one-third of our Fire Department," Wilson said.
The City Council has asked Wilson to negotiate the purchase of two new trucks designed for the hills, tentatively allowing a $474,000 expenditure from department reserves. But it will take about a year for the vehicles to be delivered.
Until the new vehicles arrive, the city will have to get by with trucks that have endured brake problems, broken gaskets and worn-out springs.
Two of the fire engines are 14 years old. The city purchased the third truck, a demonstration model built for flatland, four years ago. Officials said they opted for that model because it cost less and met new safety standards requiring closed cabins for firefighters.
Manufacturers of all three trucks have gone out of business, making it hard to find replacement parts, Wilson said. One truck recently was idled six weeks while waiting for a part.
Mayor Judith Hathaway-Francis said residents should not be alarmed; the department will be backed up by crews from nearby agencies if the engines fail.
"You think everything is going to be OK, but you need to look at the worst possible scenario, especially if you are in public safety," she said.
Fires are a major concern in this hilly community of about 6,200 dominated by secluded homes on lots of least one acre in size. Four serious brush fires were reported in the city last year and some structures were damaged, officials said.
Shortly after taking office last July, Wilson banned smoking in many undeveloped areas and in parked vehicles in an effort to deter smokers from tossing lighted cigarettes into the brush. The city also requires residents to clear brush within 200 feet of all structures.
City officials said they also are concerned about a recent county decision allowing longer ambulance response times in La Habra Heights because of its semirural location. The company that services the area, Crippen Ambulance Services Inc., is required to answer 90% of its calls within 17 minutes.
The company was required to respond within 10 minutes under the previous regulations, and most cities have eight-minute response times.
Hathaway-Francis said she has asked county supervisors to reverse the decision, saying the response time for La Habra Heights should be on a par with Whittier and other nearby cities.
Lawrence Monson, Crippen vice president, said ambulance crews stationed in Whittier would have to break driving laws and safety regulations to reach parts of La Habra Heights within eight minutes.
Though the guidelines have changed, Monson said, the company responds to most calls within 12 minutes, about the same as response times last year.