Volunteer fire department in San Diego County transitions to professional one after legal fight
It is the end of an era.
The volunteer firefighters who for nearly 40 years protected the tiny community of Julian, a popular tourist destination in San Diego County, are gone.
Last week, a team of professional firefighters moved into the new station off state Route 79.
The move came eight months after the community voted to dissolve the region’s last volunteer fire department, which became a symbol of the struggle between residents wanting to maintain the old ways and those wanting to modernize.
The dispute boiled over last spring when some of the volunteers briefly locked themselves inside the fire station and refused to leave to protest the takeover. They were eventually forced out after a series of legal setbacks.
Though some still hold out a sliver of hope they will one day regain the property and their oversight of the rural area, the lawsuit challenging the district’s dissolution was dismissed a few weeks ago, finally freeing the county to move in.
“The court has said the dissolution was done properly and won’t be set aside,” Senior Deputy County Counsel Josh Heinlein said.
As of Wednesday, the San Diego County Fire Authority’s firefighters and paramedics have been based out of the station on a full-time basis, just as the first big snow of the year hit the mountain town.
Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp issued a final ruling last month ending the lawsuit filed by the supporters of the volunteer department. The county then towed away more than a half-dozen firetrucks and other vehicles that had been sitting unused inside the station while the court processed various legal challenges.
Most of the volunteer department’s equipment will be sold for salvage, Fire Authority and local Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham said.
“Some of those vehicles will cost more to repair than they are worth,” he said. “Some are at the end of their lifespan. Others may be repaired and put back in service.”
The county also recently hauled away a load of firewood stored near the station that volunteers had kept available for residents to pick up should they run low in the winter. This outraged a few of the supporters of the volunteers who have been very critical of the county’s actions, especially on social media.
Mecham said the volunteers refused to meet with the county to discuss the transition.
Nevertheless, he said, “we do not disburse firewood to families. That’s not the role of government.”
The truckload of wood was taken to other fire stations that had wood-burning stoves.
Legally, it could still be a year or longer before everything connected to the transition is resolved in court. Two appeals remain and a lawsuit concerning who owns the land the volunteer station sits upon may still be forthcoming.
But injunctions and restraining orders that had kept things in limbo for much of the year no longer apply. Ever since April, the county has been providing medical and structure fire protection for the community using firefighters based in two California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection stations in the area.
The volunteer department was formed in the 1980s after the county disbanded a county fire department in the 1970s, leaving much of the backcountry to fend for itself. The volunteer department has been a source of pride, one of the things that bound the community together.
But in recent years the volunteer department had struggled financially. Attempts to raise property taxes to support the department failed, and staffing at times became an issue.
After the firestorms of 2003 and 2007, the county formed a new county fire department, the Fire Authority, which contracts with Cal Fire. The Fire Authority eventually took control of every volunteer department in the region except in Julian, which stubbornly hung on to its independence.
The concept was to create a county fire department that would replace the backcountry volunteer agencies with professional firefighters and upgraded equipment.
In early 2018, after rejecting overtures from the county, the board of directors of the volunteer department decided to seek dissolution over the loud objections of volunteers and many of their supporters.
A protest was launched. Enough signatures were gathered in the area to force a special election, which was held in March. The result: 54% of local voters opted for county control. After the certification of the election, on April 8, the volunteer group filed a lawsuit against the county to block the move.
Volunteers locked themselves in the station until the last day of May. After they left, the county changed the locks.
There are still those in the community upset about the moves, though Mecham and others say they think those still making a fuss are limited to a dozen or so.
“I think the bad feelings involved a very small number of people,” Mecham said. “The people of Julian are supportive. They wave. They buy our firefighters coffee.”
Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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