Sonoma County considers adding more firefighters with a possible half-cent tax hike

Sonoma County is moving forward with a plan to consolidate fire agencies, add firefighters, and improve stations. But the ambitious intentions will require a half-cent hike in the county sales tax. 

Currently there are 39 fire districts, many of them small, some volunteer only, often struggling with funds and staffing. 

"I don't need to be chief anymore, I've been chief for forty years, I just want to be involved," Augie Grube told KTVU, outside the Knight's Valley Volunteer Fire Department, near Calistoga, on the Napa-Sonoma line.  

The firehouse, built in the 1970's, is close to where October's Tubbs Fire started, which became a firestorm that ravaged parts of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. 

That night, Chief Grube and one other volunteer were the only ones available, and they guided people out of the valley to safety. 

"He had his pick-up truck and I had the small fire truck," said Grube, "and there were three trucks in the fire house with no one to man them. it was frustrating." 

The chief finds it difficult to recruit and train new volunteers because the cost of living drives young people from the area. 

So if his department, along with dozens of others, consolidate into a big county-wide fire agency, it might allow some firefighters to earn incomes, as well as bring much-needed modernization of the station and equipment. 

That's the argument fire chiefs, in a show of unity, brought to Sonoma County Supervisors on Tuesday. 

The proposal, approved by the board, would add 177 new firefighters, many of them paramedics, and build or replace ten stations where there are gaps in coverage.

"This is an example of raising the standard for everyone," Board President James Gore told KTVU, "so there's a lot of work to do, but if I was going to fight for any tax, this is it." 

Fire consolidation has been a work in progress for a few years, after some initial resistance. 

The idea gained more momentum after October's firestorm, plus the big fires that have continued across California in the months since. 

"We've got to be able to take care of our own, depend on ourselves for at least the first 72 hours of any fire, before we can consider the cavalry coming in as mutual aid," said Gore.      

In the burn zones as neighborhoods rebuild, fire survivors are quick to embrace better fire protection, even if it means paying more for items they purchase. 

"Absolutely, absolutely," responded Paul Hanson, who lost his home of twenty years in Larkfield Estates. 

"And I would hope most people would be willing to pay it, at least the people who have gone through this."  

The current patchwork of various-sized districts is fragmented and uncoordinated, according to critics. 

"They're all stacked up on top of each other almost like jigsaw puzzles," said Supervisor Linda Hopkins, who represents west Sonoma County, which has 22 different departments alone. 

Under new county-wide management? 

"You could still keep battalion chiefs, you could still keep your logo on your trucks and jackets, and there would still be that common sense of ownership," said Hopkins, "still have pancake breakfasts and bar-b-ques, but allow for efficiency and economy of scale."

At Knight's Valley VFD, where the water tender is 40 years old, Chief Grube isn't worried about identity.

"I don't feel that we'll lose that because we're out here, we're rural, we have this identity and it's not going to go away."

Ironically, the array of small fire districts sprang up after a historic fire disaster: the Hanley Fire in 1964, which decimated Calistoga and went on to burn toward Santa Rosa, in much the same path as the Tubbs Fire. 

For the proposed sales tax hike to go on a 2019 ballot, all nine cities In Sonoma County would need to endorse it.

If passed, it would raise more than $40 million annually. 

"Everybody's got to be on board, but I'll tell you, I'm lining up with firefighters and I hope everyone else is too," declared Gore.