When Nevada County incorporated in April of 1851, just seven months after California became the 31st state, the various “cities” that emerged around the region’s gold mining camps were mostly just collections of huts, or even just tents. As the area grew more prosperous with the influx not merely of hopeful prospectors but, even more importantly, the service businesses started by pioneer entrepreneurs to tap the market created by rapid population growth, buildings sprang up. Hotels, boarding houses, saloons, banks, general stores—all of them built from wood.
What came next was frighteningly predictable, at least from today’s perspective. One by one, the new mining towns burned down. Nevada City, the county seat from incorporation through today, burned five times in six years. The 1856 fire was the big one, torching 400 buildings which was almost every structure in town including churches and the county courthouse. Even 22 of the city’s supposedly “fire-proof” brick buildings burned.
Worst of all, 10 people died in the fire, which inflicted $1.5 million in damage—the equivalent of about $43.5 million in 2021 cash, quite a sum for a town of 10,000 people at the time.
Fires Ravaged Nevada County in the Gold Rush Era
Less than a year before the Nevada City fire, just a few miles away, the city of Grass Valley had suffered a blaze that destroyed about 300 buildings, all but two structures in the downtown area. Grass Valley had incorporated only six months earlier, but it would be another three years before the city started its own fire department. The settlement was also burned in 1852.
Nor did fires settle down after the devastating Nevada City fire in ‘56. The years 1858, 1860, 1862, 1863, 1873, 1877 and 1880 also saw blazes rip through Nevada County towns.
More than 140 years later, fires continue to burn through Nevada County. In 2021, the River Fire which burned more than 2,600 acres in Nevada and Placer Counties, forced about 4,300 residents to evacuate in Nevada County alone—more than four percent of the county’s population. Grass Valley was the site of another blaze, known as the Bennett Fire, that burned 59 acres and placed 7,000 people under evacuation orders.
Fires in Nevada County, as in other California Counties, appear to be getting worse. When the 1988 49er Fire ripped through 53 square miles of Nevada County, it quickly became the third-most destructive in state history. By 2020, it didn’t even qualify for the top 20.
10 Fire Districts Now Responsible For Protecting County
The big difference is, by the late 20th and early 21st century, the responsibility for preventing and fighting fires is now the responsibility not of ordinary citizens with water buckets and damp blankets, as in the Grass Valley Fire of 1855—but of 10 separate fire districts within the county, each its own, independent governmental entity. In addition to those districts, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as Cal Fire, and the United States Forest Service Wildland Fire Protection department also hold responsibility for areas of the county in forested areas under federal or state jurisdiction.
While fire departments are generally funded and operated by city governments, and operate only within city limits, fire districts are “special districts,” independent governmental entities in their own right that cross municipal boundaries, largely in rural or unincorporated areas of a county. Each fire district is governed by its own, elected (in most cases) board of directors, and funds itself through taxes paid by residents of the district.
The state’s Fire Protection District Act of 1987 (which superseded similar 1961 legislation), codified California’s long-standing practice of local control over fire services into law. Under the law, fire districts can operate fire stations, ambulances, and other services “relating to the protection of lives and property critical to the public peace, health, and safety.”
The largest of the fire districts, at least in terms of population served, is the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, which provides fire protection for about 150 square miles and 36,000 residents—and more than $2 billion worth of land and property—in the western portion of the county. The NCCFD is responsible for lands that surround both Nevada City and Grass Valley, but not the cities themselves, each of which operate their own municipal fire districts. Or at least, they did until December of 2020, when the two cities merged their fire departments into one entity. For the previous two decades, the two cities had an agreement that let either department respond to fire emergencies, depending on which one was closer to the incident.
Grand Jury Investigations Target Fire Districts
Founded in 1990 by the merger of two previous fire districts, Gold Flat and Bullion, NCCFD operates 12 fire stations, but only four with firefighting staff on site. The other eight rely on “paid call” firefighters. That is, ordinary citizens who hold regular jobs, but who spring into action as fully trained firefighters when a call comes in. The district also jointly operates two other stations, one each with Grass Valley and Nevada City.
The very existence of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, however, has been controversial. In 2013, the Nevada County civil grand jury investigated the district's finances and overall operations, concluding that fire protection in the western part of the county should be completely reorganized.
The report cheekily titled, “Nevada County Consolidated Fire District: To Be or Not to Be, That is the Question,” recommended that all of the fire protection entities in the region which also included the Grass Valley and Nevada City fire departments, the Penn Valley Fire Protection District, Higgins Area Fire Protection District and five others, all be consolidated into a single fire protection unit under the governance of the county’s board of supervisors.
But while the supervisors, in their response to the report, said that a single entity “could be more effective and efficient” when it comes to protecting against fires, they declined to act on the grand jury’s recommendation—even though at the time the district’s management came under investigation for alleged financial improprieties, including lending district gasoline credit cards to persons not involved with the district.
In 2020, the grand jury investigated the NCCFD and other fire districts in the county again. This time, the subject was the periodic fire safety inspections that districts must carry out. Under state guidelines, every property in a fire district must be inspected every five years to see how well it complies with fire safety codes. The grand jury found that across the whole county, fire districts were falling short of that best practice.
Most Districts Clean Up Their Acts After Investigation
Only five of 11 fire districts were in full compliance with the state health and safety code, as it pertained to fire inspections. Unlike the grand jury’s previous fire district investigation, this one made an impact. Revisiting its investigation a year later, the grand jury found that nine of the 11 districts got their act together and complied with the inspection requirements.
The two remaining non-compliers were the Nevada City Fire Department, whose merger with Grass Valley came soon after the grand jury’s initial report—and the North San Juan Fire Protection District. North San Juan is the oldest continuously operating fire district in the county, dating back to 1862. It was officially incorporated as a district in 1986.
The district also covers the largest land mass of any fire district in the county, spanning 87 square miles in mostly unincorporated territory north of the South Yuba River to the Middle Yuba River. But the North San Juan district has the smallest budget of any fire district in Nevada County, employing an all-volunteer fire department to fight fires and provide other emergency responses for fewer than 3,000 residents.