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California

Julian residents to decide fate of San Diego County’s last volunteer fire department

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The Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District’s future will be decided soon by voters.
(J. Harry Jones / San Diego Union-Tribune)
San Diego Union-Tribune

This is how bad things have gotten in Julian since San Diego County took control of the region’s last volunteer fire department eight months ago.

When first responders went out on a call, someone would paint over the marking that reserved the new county fire chief’s parking spot at the fire station, which used to be manned by the local volunteers who resided in the popular tourist destination. When responders got back from the call, they restored the designation.

Then, county firefighters were falsely accused of stealing a computer hard drive from the station.

Routine interactions quickly deteriorated between the volunteers, their supporters, and the professional county staff who were contracted to serve the region after the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District’s board voted to relinquish its independence.

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Fearing an escalation that could put his people in harm’s way, CalFire and San Diego County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham last month moved his firefighters and equipment to a nearby CalFire station, leaving the district station to the volunteers.

This has created an odd situation in which county and volunteer firefighters are often responding to the same medical aid and traffic accidents.

Tensions in the mountain community of Julian and surrounding towns remain at an all-time high as supporters of the volunteer fire department continue to resist efforts to dissolve the 81-square-mile district in favor of the county’s professional Fire Authority, which contracts with CalFire for staffing.

The standoff has been years in the making. Its resolution now rests with the district’s 2,482 registered voters.

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This past week, ballots were mailed to voters as part of a unique mail-only election conducted by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, which is responsible for overseeing changes to local governmental boundaries, including the formation, consolidation, merger and dissolution of special districts.

There hasn’t been such an election in LAFCO’s history because the system is designed to avoid such a situation. The commissioners voted in September to dissolve the volunteer department, a move requested both by what was then a majority of the volunteer department’s board of directors and the San Diego County Fire Authority.

But LAFCO’s rules, seldom used, said if at least 25% of the registered voters in the district filed protest letters, then a special election must be held. Twenty-six percent did so.

It will now be up to residents to make the final call. The ballots must be returned by March 19 and will likely be counted within a few weeks by the Registrar of Voters.

Only registered voters who live within the jurisdiction can vote on Measure A, something that has upset homeowners who have vacation houses in the district. Most of those second-home residents appear to favor the county taking over fire responsibility, but have no say in the matter under LAFCO rules. Since November’s elections, 29 more people have registered to vote in the district, most likely to have a say in the decision.

The Fire Authority was created about a decade ago as a response to the firestorms that devastated the county in 2003 and 2007. Many of those fires began in the backcountry and then moved west into places such as Scripps Ranch and Rancho Bernardo.

The county Board of Supervisors decided it was time to create a county fire department that would assume control over the many volunteer departments in the backcountry to bring more professionalism to the vast unincorporated areas.

The county met with resistance, but eventually all the volunteer departments were absorbed — all but Julian, which fiercely protected its independence despite having struggled for years financially.

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The volunteers and their supporters insist the area is better served and safer with locals in the engines — locals who know the area and care deeply for its citizens.

They say the fire department is a source of great pride for the unincorporated communities it serves and that the county is making a power grab.

In 2016, the volunteer department’s elected directors agreed to a temporary arrangement with the county to provide services in conjunction with its volunteers. In exchange, the county obtained a promise from the district that it would seriously consider dissolution.

Finally, in 2018, following several earlier votes to remain independent, three of the five board members voted to go with the county and the LAFCO proceedings began.

In June, CalFire personnel took over the station and Mecham placed many of the volunteers on “non-response status” because they lacked proper training. Meanwhile, in November, local voters rejected Proposition QQ, which had been placed on the ballot by supporters of the volunteer department and would have raised property taxes for fire protection from $50 to $200. The measure failed by a vote of 976 to 836.

But supporters of the volunteers say the vote was not indicative of the community’s support and only showed that voters are always reluctant to raise their own taxes.

At the same time, the leadership of the board of directors of the Julian department changed, and now all five members are opposed to dissolution.

Cal Fire for decades has had fire stations in the area and no matter what happens will still have the responsibility of fighting wildland fires in the jurisdiction. But medical calls, traffic accidents and structure fires are the responsibility of the volunteer department. Should Measure A fail, once again the volunteer department will bear that burden alone, minus CalFire’s extra equipment, manpower and funding from which it has benefited the past several years.

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“If we get a call [with the election result] at 4:00 that they voted to be independent, at 4:01 p.m., those fire engines will be unstaffed. It will be that quick,” Mecham said.

“We expect the first week of April to get the results,” he continued. “And I’ve been very clear from day one on this. Independence means independence. The County of San Diego has been subsidizing Julian for 11 years. They’ve built this very robust regional fire system. The budget this year is $42 million for fire protection.”

“Within an hour of receiving those election results, I will close the Cuyamaca CalFire station and I will close the Julian station [because high fire season will not yet have begun]. The paramedic fire engine will go away and I have also notified the district we will not do automatic aid with them.

“Before, we were doing automatic response, so when the volunteers didn’t show up, nobody noticed that. I’m not going to continue doing that. It’s not my responsibility to keep financially supporting their calls.”

Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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