El Dorado County has 10 separate fire protections districts. Is that too many?
El Dorado County spreads reponsibility for fire protection among 10 different districts. Stuart Rankin / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Igniting in mid-August, the Caldor Fire exploded across the El Dorado National Forest in El Dorado County, forcing more than 22,000 people to evacuate and destroying the small mountain community of Grizzly Flats. The fire burned more than 220,000 acres in six weeks, by which time it was only 83 percent contained. The Caldor blaze may have been the largest in years. The 2019 Caples Fire burned 3,485 acres and the 2014 Sand Fire just 4,240, also crossing into Amador County. But wildfires are nonetheless a regular feature of El Dorado County life.
In 2021, through the end of September, El Dorado County endured the Caldor Fire and four other, smaller fires, according to CAL Fire incident reports. The previous year, the county saw six wildfires, the largest being the 36-acre Sophia Fire. In 2019, there were also six including the Caples Fire. Five in 2018, nine in 2017, and so on.
The responsibility for protecting the county’s 193,000 residents and their property against these repeated fires is spread over 10 separate fire districts, as well as the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department, many of them relying on volunteer firefighters. Cal Fire (aka the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) also provides fire protection throughout the county, and the Eldorado National Forest, where the Caldor Fire began, is under federal jurisdiction.
Does that make any sense? Not to the El Dorado County grand jury, which had repeatedly advocated for consolidating all or at least some of the fire districts into a single agency. As a 2016 grand jury report noted, the 2008 recession hit small fire districts hard. And all of the districts in El Dorado County qualify as “small.” The grand jury as far back as 2008 issued a report calling for consolidation.
At that time, the county poured supplementary funding into financially strapped fire districts, a program that ended in 2009. In 2008, the grand jury said that consolidation could save the county $1.2 million per year, which was approximately the amount of cash the districts received in subsidies—a payment program that the grand jury called “unfair to County citizens outside these subsidized districts.”
Nor does it make sense to the El Dorado County Local Agency Formation Commission (better known as LAFCO), which in 2010 commissioned an extensive study by an outside consultant, which found that six of the county’s fire agencies were in “unstable” condition, judged by the revenues and services they were able to offer. Another two were classified in the report as in “modest condition with stretched services.”
In 2018, a grand jury investigation found that, other than one district that merged into a neighboring one, “the financial status of the agencies identified in the 2010 study remains substantially the same today.”
The Latrobe Fire Protection District, one of those “unstable” districts, was since annexed by the El Dorado Hills Fire Department, which is operated by the El Dorado Hills County Water District. In fact, since 1973, when El Dorado Hills voters decided to put water and sewer services under the umbrella of the Irrigation District, the fire department has been the water district’s only operation.
Another “unstable” agency named in the 2010 report by management consultants Citygate Associates was the Mosquito Fire Protection District, which the report described as having “done a very good job of staying within their available resources,” also noting that “revenue sources have risen as expenses have risen.”
But when the grand jury investigated the Mosquito district in 2015, jurors found it “abundantly clear that the district was in a state of dysfunction—on the verge of being unable to govern effectively.”
Not only was the Mosquito FPD unable to find a counterpart to merge with, due to its being “too small in every respect, including available revenue, to be an attractive partner,” the behavior of the district’s elected directors left something to be desired. The jurors found “name calling and the use of inappropriately crude and vulgar language at board meetings by directors directed at other directors,” as well as a high degree of turnover on the board. In 2015, two directors abruptly resigned, then just as suddenly rescinded their resignations.
In 2011 and 2012, two more “unstable” fire protection districts, Garden Valley and Georgetown—which are located only four miles apart—made a Herculean effort to consolidate their two entities. They negotiated for 18 months, with the county LAFCO guiding the way, only to see the process fizzle when the county could not give an estimate of how much property tax revenue the newly merged fire district would receive.
The grand jury again took up the consolidation problem in 2020, this time focusing on the nine districts in the county’s West Slope zone—the region west of the Lake Tahoe basin, and which comprises most of the county. The report made it clear that the grand jury wanted to see those districts combined into one zone-wide fire protection agency.
“The relatively large number of fire protection entities provide an inconsistent level of services that is unique to most rural California counties,” the report said.
One West Slope district, the El Dorado Hills Fire Department, employs three full-time firefighters for each of its four fire engines, allowing the district’s stations to stay on call 24 hours per day. Three other districts, El Dorado County, Diamond Springs, and Rescue, maintain two full-timers per engine, while the Cameron Park district operates under contract with Cal Fire.
But the remaining four districts—Georgetown, Garden Valley, Mosquito and Pioneer—are volunteer fire departments, resulting in a less-than-ideal situation in which no one staffs the station for significant periods. As the grand jury noted, “it is not considered safe to respond on a call with less than two firefighters. Nationwide standard practice is to have at least three firefighters on scene before entering a burning structure.”
A joint powers authority manages all ambulances in El Dorado County. Each fire district contracts with the JPA for emergency medical services.
This latest call for fire district consolidation, perhaps predictably, met with resistance as well, even though voters have repeatedly rejected ballot measures to raise parcel taxes in order to fund their fire districts. Parcel taxes are a type of real estate tax that is not based on a property’s value, but is rather a flat tax. Parcel taxes allow districts to circumvent California’s Proposition 13, which limits property taxes to 1 percent of a property’s value.
In one September 2019 ballot measure, voters in the Garden Valley FPD rejected a parcel tax hike to fund their firefighters on the same day that two of those same firefighters were injured and narrowly escaped death while battling the Country Fire. One of those two firefighters, the Sacramento Bee reported, was then laid off due to the funding shortfall that would have been remedied if voters had okayed the new tax.
In a response to the 2020 grand jury’s call for consolidating the nine West Slope districts, the board of the Rescue FPD said that the recommendation should apply only to the “smaller” districts—and then only if those districts fail to find partners with which to merge, or if their voters continue to reject tax increases to fund the districts.
In 2019 and into 2021, Rescue FPD was trying to merge with the El Dorado Hills Fire Department.
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