Julian Volunteer Firefighters Battle To Preserve Their District
Wednesday, October 3, 2018
Photo by Priya Sridhar
Priya Sridhar, reporter, KPBS News
The era of using volunteer firefighters as the front line in Julian may be coming to an end.
In February, the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Prevention District board voted 3 to 2 to dissolve the volunteer fire force that had been serving the community since the 1980s.
Aida Tucker is the vice president of the JCFPD board and voted to dissolve the department.
"I looked at the budget and saw that there’s no way we were going to be able to make it in the next couple years. We probably would be broke by then without any extra help, so thinking about the community and what they deserve, I decided to go ahead and vote to dissolve the district," she said.
Because of staffing and response problems, Julian's Fire Prevention Board asked the San Diego County Fire Authority for help in 2015. It entered into a two-year contract and the county gave the area extra resources and $105,000 in subsidies and services. But when the contract expired in October 2017, the board voted to stay independent, and much of the extra county funding disappeared. Tucker said it quickly became clear that Julian wouldn't be able to fund a 24/7 response team on its own.
"The county has helped us all these years. We’ve received money from them every year to run our station...They’ve helped us with other things too as far as communications and things like that," she said.
Mike Van Bibber is a battalion chief for JCFPD and has been volunteering for more than thirty years. He is strongly opposed to the board's decision to dissolve the district.
"It goes way back to our forefathers of our country, they realized that more government is not always the answer. We the people govern ourselves and take care of each other," he said.
JCFPD has been using a roster of approximately fifty volunteer firefighters to respond to anything from house fires to traffic accidents, according to Van Bibber. Julian residents have been paying $50 a year to support the volunteer department. Next month, they'll vote whether to raise that fee to $200 a year. That fee increase will only take effect if supporters are successful in a petition drive to save the department. Van Bibber and other volunteers are already collecting signatures to stop the dissolution.
"I have a good feeling it’s going to pass overwhelmingly. It’ll go to the people and then JCFPD as we know it will emerge from the ashes and become better than we ever were," Van Bibber said.
They have until mid-October to get 25 percent of the residents in the district to sign the petition and put the matter to a vote.
In the meantime, the Fire Authority is using Cal Fire employees to provide emergency services in Julian. The Fire Authority said the community will not see any new taxes as a result of the reorganization. Instead, the property taxes that had been going to the volunteer district will go to the county.
Van Bibber and his supporters find that hard to believe.
"I'm sorry, I’m of the school that you don’t get anything for nothing, and if that is true then we’re the only county in the entire state that is not going to be required to pay. Every other county that has been taken over by the county fire authorities has paid significantly," he said.
Funding isn't the only concern. Cal Fire Captain Jon Heggie said he's willing to work with the volunteers, but many of them didn't have the right certifications to be responding to emergencies. Many, like Van Bibber, haven't been allowed to work since the consolidation on June 1.
"Some of those people did not have the certification they needed, but what the county has done is make numerous attempts to try to get training for those employees to get them up to a level so they can serve their community," Heggie said.
Van Bibber sees the move to dissolve the volunteer fire force as an attack on his community's way of life.
"It goes way back to our forefathers of our country. They realized that more government is not always the answer. We the people govern ourselves and take care of each other," he said.
For now, the transition is underway. Heggie says he understands change is challenging.
"We did not come in here and ask to be here. We were asked to be here," he said. "But the reality is we’re here to serve the public. That’s why I signed up to be a firefighter, that’s why my coworkers signed up for this profession. Bottom line at the end of the day, if we can provide a level of service to the people of Julian that they expect, then that’s what we’re here to do."
The San Diego County Fire Authority has begun consolidating with the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Prevention District after the JCFPD Board voted to dissolve the volunteer department.
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