By Randi Rossmann
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Four central Sonoma County fire agencies aim to join forces within months as one huge fire district -- a shift fast-tracked by the October fires and the most visible progress in a years-long effort to streamline the county's outdated, uneven and financially struggling fire services network.
Windsor, Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley fire districts and the Mountain Volunteer Company are on track to be one agency by this spring.
The plan is backed by the Board of Supervisors, which has long favored consolidation and which last year promised funding for agencies joining forces. Currently, almost 40 fire agencies exist countywide, but the operating theory is that a more centralized, professional firefighting corps can be better prepared for a future with more destructive, faster-moving wildfires.
The new 160-square-mile district with 75,000 residents would cover about a tenth of the county in a swath that encircles Santa Rosa. Officials say it could serve as a template for future consolidation in fire service.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins called the proposal the long-awaited "break in the dam."
"Once this goes forward we're going to see lots of agencies having watched that succeed and eager to go out and make their own mark and come together with their neighbors," Hopkins said.
The move to unify long-separate fire entities is another major result of the historic infernos that raged across the North Bay last year, overwhelming both local and state firefighting resources. Other changes affecting fire and emergency response have included a new state mandate to standardize disaster alerts, improved training for 911 dispatchers and a surge in funding for firefighting and forestland fuel management.
In Sonoma County, for the past five years, fire officials sitting on multiple committees pushed for the type of consolidation now underway. Complexities and lingering reluctance to lose independence stalled most efforts. The main exception was Geyeserville fire's annexation of the Knights Valley volunteer fire jurisdiction.
Then last Oct. 8 and 9, hot winds fueled a deadly outbreak of fire across Northern California. Firefighters in the county worked together, as they do, regardless of jurisdiction. In the aftermath, obstacles to change seemed less formidable, with a new attitude of collaboration and greater sense of urgency forged by disaster.
"Out of the fires came inspiration and motivations," said Mark Heine, fire chief of Rincon Valley and Windsor. He endorsed and expanded consolidation efforts started by retired Chief Jack Piccinini and is slated to be chief of the proposed new district, expected to be up and running by April.
It's a pragmatic move for several of the fire districts.
On their own, Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley and Mountain face severe financial loss in property tax revenue from thousands of burned homes and the risk in the next few years of budget and staff cuts.
Consolidating should shore up their financial outlook, according to a county analysis.
"It's a path forward," Heine said. "Thirty-plus fire agencies is not sustainable."
Rest of county
Progress is slower elsewhere in the county where several fire agencies remain in talks. But even that step is some improvement, officials said.
The west county is lagging far behind in the process, said Hopkins, who represents the area. There are 22 fire agencies in her supervisorial district with varying interest in change. Progress there includes a plan underway for a summit of west county fire agencies, spanning from Bloomfield to Timber Cove on the coast. ___
This article is written by Randi Rossmann from The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.