Eleven fire protection districts currently cover the unincorporated areas of Monterey County.
Monterey County is protected by 11 separate fire districts. National Wildfire Coordinating Group / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
The spectacular Big Sur coast in Monterey County was settled relatively late in California’s history. The development of a thriving trade in tanbark (a type of tree bark used for tanning leather) in the 1870s caused villages to spring up along the coast. In the following decade, starting with the discovery of what became the Last Chance Mine along Alder Creek, the Gold Rush came to Monterey, almost 40 years after the first gold strikes in the Sierra Nevada. The influx of hopeful miners spun off bustling towns and businesses as well.
But along with the new and rather sudden population growth came fire.
A series of fires, in fact, wiped out the gold mining towns. And in 1894, according to regional historian David Rogers, “most of what is now the Monterey Ranger district was consumed by a fire that burned unchecked for weeks.” Forest fires continued to rage through 1896 and 1897, recollections of residents at the time show. Another fire in 1904, started by a campfire, burned freely for three months in the Chews Ridge area.
There were no official records kept. The policy of the federal government toward wildfires at that time was simply to ignore them. Eventually, they would burn themselves out.
Reliable records that begin in 1932 show that Monterey County was plagued by fire. The largest and most destructive on record have happened since 1977—the year of the Marble Cone Fire. That blaze, sparked by lightning strikes, burned through more than 177,000 acres of wildland, at that time making it the largest wildfire in California history.
Today, it ranks 20th—though it remains the largest fire ever in Monterey County. The Soberanes Fire of 2016 came close, burning more than 132,000 acres, and 2020’s Dolan Fire burned nearly 125,000.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, not only were no real records kept of wildfires in Monterey County, methods of fighting those fires were primitive at best. It was up to local residents to fight fires themselves, for the most part. In 1934, the Salinas chapter of the California State Grange—an agricultural advocacy group that has been around since 1873—requested that a fire protection district be formed to serve the area, under the 1923 state law authorizing creation of fire districts.
The Salinas Rural Fire Protection District, after several realignments, changed its name in 2009 to the Monterey County Regional Fire Protection District, and in 2011 completed a merger with the Carmel Valley Fire Protection District to form the 400-square-mile district serving more than 38,000 residents that exists today.
The Monterey County Regional FPD is just one of 11 fire districts that cover unincorporated areas of the county, where municipal fire departments operated by city governments generally don’t go. The county also has two all-volunteer fire brigades remaining—the Mid-Coast and Big Sur brigades, founded in 1979 and 1974 respectively. The Monterey Regional Airport also has its own dedicated fire department.
The oldest fire protection district in Monterey County, Carmel Highlands FPD, was formed in 1932 and now covers just 9.3 square miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, with fewer than 1,100 residents under its jurisdiction.
The Carmel Highlands FPD, however, provides its services by contracting with the state firefighting agency known as Cal Fire. The adjacent Cypress FPD and Pebble Beach Community Services District—a multi-service district that includes fire protection—also contract with Cal Fire, resulting in what a report by the county Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) called “essentially a seamless regional fire department.”
LAFCO is the independent county board that has jurisdiction over special districts. Any changes to the boundaries of an existing district as well as creation of new ones, or closing of old ones, must go through the powerful commission. Each of California’s 58 counties has its own LAFCO.
While the 2020 Monterey County LAFCO report offered the reassuring finding that each of the 11 fire districts has the financial wherewithal to protect their respective territories for five more years following the report, the commission was not as sanguine about the future beyond that point for Monterey County’s fire districts.
“Fiscal health of the agencies varies widely, with the most financially secure agencies concentrated in the Peninsula area,” LAFCO found, adding that the solutions it has available—which include consolidating districts, detachment or annexation of new areas, or dissolving districts altogether—would not fix the “long term structural funding problems” of many agencies.
LAFCO has taken those actions on numerous occasions in the past. In 1982 LAFCO recommended that Castroville Fire, Aromas Fire, and part of the Salinas Rural district consolidate; the North County Fire Protection District was the result. Though Aromas Tri-County FPD, which also covers regions of San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, did not join the new district, North County FPD now serves over 40,000 people in its 122.9-square-mile territory.
In 2013, at LAFCO’s urging, the South Monterey County FPD annexed 63 square miles of territory to cover the unincorporated areas of San Lucas and San Ardo. And in 2017, LAFCO green-lit the detachment of the city of Greenfield from the Greenfield Fire Protection District. The city went on to form its own fire department.
But consolidation and annexation can’t fix everything. The problem, LAFCO found, comes down to property taxes, which provide most of the funds for fire districts. For most Monterey County districts, there are simply not enough funds to support the growing needs for fire protection.
Why is there an increasing demand for fire services? According to the report, the causes are “longer fire seasons and more severe fires,” phenomena caused by climate change, as well as increasing populations that make more people vulnerable to fire risk.
The ever-expanding tourism trade in the county, especially along the Big Sur coast, also leads to pressure on fire agencies, the volunteer brigades that cover that area. According to the LAFCO report, the Mid Coast brigade has “expressed interest” in forming a full-fledged fire protection district. But the Big Sur brigade wants to stay an all-volunteer force.
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