Placer County Fire Districts: Complex, Cash-Strapped System Protects Fire-Plagued County

In June of 2021, the county struck a landmark agreement with Cal Fire.

PUBLISHED NOV 19, 2021 12:16 A.M.
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Fire-plagued Placer County is protected by a complex web of largely underfunded fire districts.

Fire-plagued Placer County is protected by a complex web of largely underfunded fire districts.   Matthew Fern / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 2.0 Share-Alike License

Placer County in June of 2021 approved a historic deal with California’s firefighting and fire protection agency, Cal Fire. The state agency isn’t exactly a stranger to Placer, having fought fires there for almost 50 years. But the new deal was a big one, with the county paying Cal Fire nearly $39 million over three years in a deal to provide fire prevention and firefighting for 57,000 of the county’s 410,000 residents.

The deal, which took effect July 1, seemed to come just in time. Just over a month later, on Aug. 4, someone started a fire at Bear River Campground. While “human caused,” the exact details of how the fire started remained unclear several months later. But what is known is that the blaze, dubbed the River Fire, ripped through 2,619 acres in Placer County and neighboring Nevada County, destroying 142 buildings and damaging 21 more, as well as causing four injuries, before firefighters declared it fully “contained” nine days later.

The county was also the site of two smaller but nonetheless significant wildfires in 2021. The Watt Fire burned for just one day, which happened to be June 21, the day before the county approved the new, multimillion-dollar Cal Fire contract. The fire scorched 42 acres. Then on Sept. 5, another fire started, this one caused by arson, according to Cal Fire investigators. The Bridge Fire burned 411 acres and had the potential to become much worse, but fortuitous winds blew the flames away from nearby houses.

Placer County’s Expanding Fire Service Needs

The new contract with Cal Fire is just one element in a complex web of fire agencies attempting to protect a county that over the decades has been especially vulnerable to wildfires, with more than 550,000 acres of heavily forested land. More than 100,000 acres have burned in six major wildfires since 2001. Between 1908 and 2014, the county was hit by 149 major fires. 

The responsibility for fighting the county’s fires falls to nine separate fire protection districts—not counting the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which overlaps with a small portion of Placer County—and another nine fire departments. In its 2016 municipal service review of the districts under its jurisdiction, Placer County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) recommended that at least in western Placer County, all of the fire districts and departments should be consolidated into just one agency. 

Combining the fire districts, the LAFCO report argued, would increase efficiency across the board as the county faces a rising threat of fire directly connected to the rapid population growth there. In 2000 there were fewer than 250,000 residents in Placer County. But just between then and 2010 the county’s population grew by 40 percent. 

Lack of Planning for the Future Hampers Districts

Despite the explosive growth and the fire threat that goes with it, LAFCO found that only two of the fire agencies were diligent about strategic planning for the future while the majority “do not conduct growth planning or estimate future service needs.” The two who met LAFCO’s planning standards were the City of Roseville Fire Department and the South Placer Fire Protection District. Five others—Alta Fire Protection District, Loomis Fire Protection District, Placer Hills Fire Protection District, Rocklin Fire Protection District and the Placer County Fire Department—perform “limited” strategic planning.

Though they don’t all plan for the future, the agencies “prepare timely budgets, complete financial audits on a regular basis and were able to provide up-to-date financial records,” LAFCO found. But that doesn’t mean the districts and other agencies are always well-run. In a 2014 report, the Placer County Grand Jury said that it had “received numerous complaints by citizens who live in various Special Fire Protection Districts.”

Those complaints generally were not regarding the quality of fire services, but instead about the behavior of the districts’ governing boards. The boards had trouble, the report found, complying with the state’s open meeting laws and other transparency requirements under the Brown Act. The grand jury also noted “perceived ethical problems related to the actions of Fire District Board members.”

The grand jury found that training in ethics and Brown Act requirements for fire district board members was “inconsistent.” In reports in 2013 and 2015, however, the grand jury singled out the Newcastle Fire Protection District for “significant deficiencies with their fiscal operation” and for wasting money by failing to properly maintain an 80-year-old fire station, resulting in the district paying to house firefighters outside the station, as well as other otherwise unnecessary expenses.

The Real Problem Affecting County Fire Service: Money

But the real, pervasive problem facing Placer County Fire Districts is simply money. Three districts—Foresthills, Placer Hills, and the Placer County Fire Department (the latter of which services 58,000 residents in unincorporated areas)—all reported finances “inadequate to provide service at the desired level” per the LAFCO report, while three others “face apparent financing constraints forcing cost reduction measures.”

With the ever-present and rising fire threats, funding fire districts might be expected to occupy a high position on the priority list. But that very growing demand coupled with declining property taxes and the rising costs of maintaining adequate service has left the county’s fire districts cash-strapped.

The LAFCO report recommended a first step of combining Placer County Fire Department, the City of Colfax Fire Department and the special fire districts into one entity, with the long-term goal of creating a single, unified fire agency for the region. But those steps had not happened in five years after the LAFCO report was issued.

In addition to saving money, and possibly raising new funds by the sale of surplus fire engines and other equipment—also reducing the overall age of the fire engine fleet—consolidation would allow more efficient use of firefighting personnel, streamline administrative staffing, and just generally lead to better “efficiency, professionalism, and public safety.”

The new contract with Cal Fire appears tailored to address at least some of those issues. Under the contract, Cal Fire will now manage the Colfax department, and help the Placer County Fire Department handle the burgeoning number of calls it must deal with each year. In 2020, the PCFD fielded 31 calls every day, on average, according to a Sacramento Bee report.

The contract pays for 61 full-time firefighters and another 33 volunteer firefighters, as well as converting five firefighting slots to paramedic positions serving rural areas of the county, the Bee reported.

Placer County provides a full list of all fire agencies, including districts as well as federal and state agencies, at this link. To find out which fire district covers any specific location, the county offers an interactive map at this link.

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