One of the few California counties without a special fire district struggles to create one.
San Benito is one of the few California counties without a special district in charge of fire protection. J. Stephen Conn / Flickr C.C. 2.0 Generic License
The city of Hollister was incorporated on March 26, 1872, two years before San Benito County itself was carved out of Monterey County to become its own entity—with Hollister as the county seat. But it took three years, until Dec. 20, 1875, before the new city set up a mechanism to battle fires in and around the community of just over 1,000 people.
The Hollister Fire Department started out with three “hose” companies, each in fire stations (or “hose barns,” as they were called at the time) “located where the fire rages the most.” The city also had one company equipped with a hook-and-ladder cart. The department’s 69 firefighters were volunteers, like all of the staff. As an “area of response,” the new department designated the city of Hollister and its “immediate vicinity.”
Jump forward in time more than 140 years, and the Hollister Fire Department remains the primary fire protection agency in San Benito County. The city of San Juan Bautista also has its own fire department, but in 2019 that city approved a contract with Hollister for fire services over the following seven years. According to a report by BenitoLink, San Juan Bautista agreed to pay Hollister a sum of just over $190,000 per year for fire protection, while Hollister pays about $36,000 to rent a fire station next to San Juan Bautista City Hall.
The Hollister Fire Department, in fact, provides fire services to the county, and has since 2013. And in 2018, the Hollister City Council and the San Benito County Board of Supervisors gave the green light to extending the firefighting contract for another seven years, with three options to renew for one-year extensions for a total of 10 years (if those options are exercised).
Hollister firefighters joined responders from throughout California and the United States in September 2021 in what turned out to be a futile attempt to save the Plumas County town of Greenville from the raging Dixie Fire, which grew to become the second-largest wildfire in state history, scorching more than 960,000 acres, or about 1,500 square miles.
The year 2020 was, according to a BenitoLink report, the worst year on record for the Hollister Fire Department, which dealt with a 35 percent increase in fire incidents.
What San Benito County does not have is a special fire district. In contrast, neighboring Santa Cruz County, with a population about four times the size, is covered by 11 different districts, as well as three city fire departments and a county department. There are 377 fire protection districts throughout California. But none in San Benito County, nor in a dozen other counties, according to a map published by the California Special Districts Association.
San Benito County has been making moves to set up a single fire district for the county at least since 2013. When the possibility came up in 2016, Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said that he estimated the budget for a district at about $8 million, but others said that it could be as high as $10 million—cash that would need to be raised by a new tax assessment on property owners in the district.
The purpose of a special fire district would be to unify fire protection services in the county and its two cities. But the real advantage comes by creating a new tax base that would let the whole county share the responsibility for fire protection more equitably.
Hollister pays most of the cost for county fire services—over $5 million of the department’s $6.4 million budget as of 2016. The county government kicked in another $1.1 million and San Juan Bautista contributed less than $164,000. The rest comes from federal grant money, which has an annoying habit of running out.
A single fire district that covers most of the county would be funded, as are all special districts, with property taxes. That system would not only spread the burden more evenly, but also guarantee a more reliable source of funding for firefighting services.
Of course, property taxes must be approved by voters within any fire district, and that doesn’t always work out. In El Dorado County in 2019, voters in the Garden Valley Fire Protection District nixed a new tax hike to fund fire services on the same day that two of the district’s firefighters were injured battling a wildfire there. One of those injured firefighters was then laid off.
The effort to form a single fire district in San Benito has been stop-and-start, at best. In 2017, the county paid over $57,000 to Emergency Services Consulting, an Oregon firm, to produce a report on what it would take to create a fire district for San Benito County. But at a meeting in January of 2018, the supervisors revealed that the company’s CEO was “embarrassed” by the report his firm produced, and that the consultant in charge of creating the report had been fired.
Actually, there is one—or to be precise, part of one. A special fire district does cover a small slice of San Benito County territory. But under state law, the “principal county” in the Aromas Tri-County Fire Protection District is Monterey County, where the largest assessed value of land in the district is situated. The Aromas district, which was formed in 1952, also reaches into Santa Cruz County. The district has only one fire station, which sits in San Benito County, but right on the county line. Walk across Carpenteria Road, where the station is located, and you’re in Monterey County.
The Monterey County Local Agency Formation Commission has jurisdiction over the Aromas Tri-County district, and according to its Municipal Service Review, almost 66 percent of the district’s population of just over 5,500 lives in Monterey County as well. The district was created to serve the community of Aromas, which itself straddles Monterey and San Benito counties.
Cal Fire, the state agency, also maintains its San Benito Monterey Unit to fight wildfires in the county. In 2020, the unit was responsible for combatting the Coyote Fire, which burned for two days over 1,508 acres and was the largest fire contained within San Benito County that year, and the largest since 2018, when the Airline Fire burned more than 1,300 acres.
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