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Firefighters Are Priced Out of the City They Protect

Times Staff Writer

The fire near Gaviota jumped U.S. 101 and raced toward Buellton, blocking Eric Klemowicz’s path to work. Duty bound, he drove east to the San Joaquin Valley, south to Castaic, west to Ventura and north to Santa Barbara County.

Four hours later, the Montecito firefighter finally arrived at work. That was two years ago. But the area’s high housing costs long ago pushed Klemowicz 90 miles north into the next county, near Pismo Beach.

Epic commutes for Southern California public safety officials are increasingly common, as expensive housing pushes them out of urban centers and into far-flung communities.

“It’s not unheard of at many fire departments,” Klemowicz said. “I know guys who work for Los Angeles County [fire department] and live in Lake Havasu. There are guys moving to Turlock and Stockton who work in San Francisco and Palo Alto.”

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But few places face a more acute housing problem than the Montecito Fire Protection District. The median price of a home here in June was $2.3 million -- about 3 1/2 times more than the median price of a house in the rest of Santa Barbara County, according to DataQuick Information Systems, a real estate research firm.

Firefighters in Montecito earn about $75,000 after two years on the job, but that’s not nearly enough to cover a mortgage. Half of the department’s crew of 37 firefighters are long-range commuters, trekking from as far as Morro Bay and Simi Valley.

The department has mutual-aid agreements with Santa Barbara city and county, but those agencies face similar problems. Applicants who pass the job interview with the county Fire Department routinely bow out because of sticker shock, said the department’s Carol Patrick.

Other public safety agencies also feel the squeeze.

Erik Raney, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said the office has 17 vacancies now, mostly from deputies who hired on but couldn’t afford to buy a place and left. Lots of deputies make about $55,000 annually and can’t afford to live here, he said.

“It happens quite a lot,” Raney said. “We have guys working for us now who are actively looking for other places to work because they can’t afford a house, or the rent is unacceptably high.”

To assist firefighters, the Montecito fire district spent $2 million this year on a lot with three modest homes that employees and their families can rent for 25% below market rate.

“Everybody has the desire to live in a certain place or have a certain lifestyle,” said Fire Chief Ron McClain, who lives in nearby Summerland. “As chief, I respect their right to live as they choose, but I personally wish they’d live closer.”

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One of America’s most celebrated hideaways for the rich and famous, Montecito is more village than city. Celebrity residents include John Cleese, Rob Lowe and Oprah Winfrey. Kevin Costner also has a place nearby.

Pressed hard by the mountains to the north and ocean to the south, the community of 11,000 is just a sliver of sloping hills and arroyos east of Santa Barbara. There are only two routes into town -- U.S. 101 from Ventura to the south and the north from Santa Maria.

When flames ignite in the Los Padres National Forest, gusts can drive fires into the community, especially late in the year when Santa Ana winds kick up.

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The community has endured some devastating blazes over the years. The 1964 Coyote fire burned 67,000 acres and destroyed more than 150 houses and buildings; the 1971 Romero fire charred 14,358 acres in 10 days and destroyed five homes; and the 1977 Sycamore Canyon fire burned 805 acres in two days and incinerated 216 houses.

On a recent weekday, McClain looked out his office window toward the brushy hills. He is confident his tiny five-engine department, with assistance from other agencies, can protect the community against big fires. Yet he acknowledges that having crews live nearby would ease his mind.

“We’re much better prepared nowadays,” McClain said, “but it’s been 16 years since we’ve had a major fire. Things get dry, brush builds up and you get nervous when there hasn’t been a burn in a long time.”

Montecito firefighter Todd Edwards, 41, sold his house in Simi Valley earlier this year and moved into one of the department’s rentals on East Valley Road. He said the commute became too arduous.

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“In 1990, it wasn’t much of a drive, but the last 10 years the traffic has increased steadily, and the last few years it’s become a pretty hard drive,” Edwards said.

But Battalion Chief Stu Pfister, 47, recently left Santa Barbara to buy a house 45 miles away in Thousand Oaks. It was an easy decision. He was able to buy a house in a gated community for half of what it would cost in Santa Barbara.

“My wife is an attorney and I’m a battalion chief and we were renting [in Santa Barbara], and there’s something fundamentally wrong with that,” he said. “I told her we’re in our 40s and we’re just treading water in this town, so we left.”

McClain said his department used to require its firefighters to live in the community, but dropped that mandate in 1981. Now he relies more on advance planning to ensure that there are enough personnel on hand to battle blazes.

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He said he has increased the number of firefighters on duty at any time from six to 10 and has improved mutual-aid agreements with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.

McClain said the department also has pursued fire-prevention measures, especially on fire-prone Mountain Drive. New ordinances prohibit wood-shake roofs, and natural and man-made barriers have been erected along the brushy north edge of town to keep fires from spreading into neighborhoods. In the event U.S. 101 is shut down, he has plans to use helicopters to get employees to the station.

“We’ve become accustomed to having people living outside the area,” McClain said. “We’ve done a lot of advance planning. It complicates matters, but we’ve adjusted.”

As for Klemowicz, he has no plans to leave the San Luis Obispo County house he bought six years ago to move closer to Santa Barbara. He says a firefighter doesn’t earn enough to live there.

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“I couldn’t see affording a house in Santa Barbara,” Klemowicz said. “I paid $320,000 for my house in Grover Beach, and it’s six blocks from the ocean. Even if I sold my place, I still wouldn’t have enough to buy here. And the property taxes alone would be about $1,000 a month. I’m happy where I’m at.”


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