Madera County has been scorched by fires so seriously in recent years that the Board of Supervisors is considering a sales tax measure in November to add firefighters and improve firefighting services.
Devastating fires in Madera County’s foothills have destroyed homes and businesses. Insurance rates skyrocketed, and some residents can’t even get insurance. A sales tax to pay for more firefighters and volunteers will enable the county to battle fires when they’re still in early stages and more likely to be stopped.
Madera County residents don’t pay county taxes for fire services now, although many in eastern parts of the county pay a State Responsibility Area fee ranging from $117 to $152 per year. The fee pays only for fire prevention projects, such as cutting dead trees.
If the county’s public safety sales tax is approved, backers say, residents could save hundreds of dollars on insurance rates, which are based on proximity to hydrants and stations, as well as the number of firefighters.
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On Tuesday, supervisors will consider paying a consultant $185,200 to poll residents and learn how much of a sales tax increase residents are willing to absorb. Supervisors are targeting a half-cent to nearly a full cent that would be levied in unincorporated areas.
Madera County’s six county-paid stations each have one firefighter. The other 10 stations in Madera County are staffed with available volunteers. Volunteers occasionally improve firefighter numbers, but their ranks are depleting because they must pay for more time-consuming and expensive training that paid firefighters also undertake.
Two people showing up in blue jeans with aging tools wouldn’t meet safety standards today.
Stewart Gary, consultant on 2008 Madera County fire services study
Bill Ritchey, a Raymond resident and supporter of the tax, said putting more firefighters on engines will allow more flexibility and put more equipment at fires. The measure also will include a fund that will help volunteers pay for their training, which could help bolster volunteer numbers. A small portion of the tax collected – perhaps 20 percent – would pay for sheriff’s staffing.
A sales tax of 0.875-of-a-cent could raise about $5 million each year, Ritchey said, and would be enough to pay for two-man staffing in each of the six stations, add three stations and pay to train volunteers.
Volunteers, now referred to as “paid-call firefighters,” are paid minimum wage. But training standards, the aging population, commute times and more people working more than one job have put a crimp on the number of volunteers available, said Stewart Gary, a principal for the Folsom-based consulting firm Citygate, which prepared a 2008 fire services study for the county.
“Two people showing up in blue jeans with aging tools wouldn’t meet safety standards today,” he said.
The county has about 50 volunteers, a number that not too long ago was two or three times higher, county officials say.
Gary’s report summarized Madera County’s firefighting situation in a worrisome tone: “There are currently not enough on-duty firefighters countywide plus paid-call firefighters responding to handle more than one serious emergency or one to three less serious emergencies at once, particularly if the paid-call firefighters cannot provide immediate response to fill out the necessary staffing.”
A hard sell?
Madera County has one of the lowest ratios of firefighters to residents in California, Eric Fleming, county administrative officer, told supervisors in January.
County supervisors all agree a problem exists and are willing to hear a consultant’s proposal, but there may not be agreement about paying for polling residents on the proposed tax.
Supervisors Tom Wheeler and David Rogers say they pay high insurance rates and they understand residents’ plight. Rogers says he wants to let voters decide, while Wheeler endorses a sales tax and said it would be paid also by tourists, not just residents.
But Supervisor Rick Farinelli said he has a problem with paying nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money for the consultant’s poll.
Selling voters on the necessity of a public safety tax could be more challenging since insurance rates, which soared in 2014, now are heading back down. In 2014, the Insurance Services Office downgraded many communities in Madera County because fire hydrants in many areas didn’t meet standards, and fire stations failed to meet minimum requirements in Ahwahnee, the North Fork area, Bass Lake, Coarsegold and Raymond.
After a re-examination, the ISO announced late last year that it revised its data; some of the communities will revert to their prior ISO ratings.
The tough part is when only one guy shows up, then another guy and another guy, and 30 minutes later you have a full complement and they can only save your neighbor’s house.
Marc Sobel, president of the Bass Lake Homeowners Association
Sheri Lee, an Oakhurst insurance broker, said the ISO changes are just now trickling down to agents. The 2014 decision kept many home and business owners from getting insurance.
“None of our companies have dropped, but there are certain areas they won’t write,” she said.
But even if insurance rates don’t drop, Marc Sobel, president of the Bass Lake Homeowners Association, believes the public safety sales tax will be a tough sell. The ballot measure would need approval from two-thirds of voters to pass.
“It’s the nature of a rural area, and we accept the fact that firefighters will not be here three minutes after we call,” he said. “The tough part is when only one guy shows up, then another guy and another guy, and 30 minutes later you have a full complement and they can only save your neighbor’s house.”
The bigger worry, he said, is if one firefighter arrives at a house and someone’s inside. Firefighting policy prohibits a solo firefighter from attempting a rescue.
County supervisors, he said, should alter their budget priorities.
“They have been getting off on the cheap for all these years,” Sobel said.
Pay now or later
Fresno County, on the other hand, recognized early the necessity to provide funding for firefighting. A series of fires in the late 1940s led the county to start a firefighting district paid through property taxes. As Fresno County grew, revenues did, too. Today, the district gets more than $17 million annually.
Raymond resident Ritchey says Madera County missed its chance to raise money when supervisors approved foothill developments without fire fees. The county budget allocates $3 million annually to contract with Cal Fire.
As new Madera County development begins to take shape north of the Fresno County line, fire fees are part of development agreements. But that does little to help the mountain region and Chowchilla-area residents who deal with high insurance rates because they lack firefighters.
In Madera County last year, the Willow fire threatened 400 homes near Bass Lake, including Wheeler’s home about a mile from where the fire started. It didn’t burn down structures but was an eerie reminder of 2014’s Junction and Courtney fires. The Junction fire burned down eight homes and several businesses in Oakhurst.
A month later and about five miles east, the Courtney fire destroyed more than 30 homes. A moonscape remains on Road 426 on some burned properties where brick fireplaces and chimneys haunt the roadside. A few hundred yards from the burned-out structures, workers are building new homes with metal roofs, plumbed with sprinklers and bare of trees.
Steve Dodd moved there from Clovis eight years ago. For the past few months, he has been getting used to his new home about 100 yards from Road 426. But even though the new house is spacious, about 500 square feet larger than the one that burned down, Dodd misses the old one.
“From the road, you wouldn’t even be able to see it” because of the pine canopy that surrounded his home, he said.
More employees don’t stop fires from happening. It would just compound the problem of more taxpayer dollars going out.
Steve Dodd, who lost his home in the 2014 Courtney fire
Only one burned cedar survived, and stumps surround the house that now looks out on snow-covered mountaintops.
He misses the custom pine-beam patio and basic comforts of his old home.
“A house doesn’t make a home; we lost all our family pictures, our children’s things,” he said. Dodd also lost a dog in the fire.
But he doesn’t think more firefighters will make a major difference and would only add to growing financial pressures.
“More employees don’t stop fires from happening,” said Dodd. “It would just compound the problem of more taxpayer dollars going out.”
On Dodd’s now-barren landscape, a family from Ahwahnee is cutting firewood from dead trees.
Michael Philley watches as wood gets tossed on a trailer and recalls a childhood memory of a fire that burned his family out of their home in 1961. The Harlow fire was the fastest-moving fire recorded in California at that time, 21,000 acres in two hours.
“It burned the house down,” Philley said. “We couldn’t even grab our stuff. We left with the clothes on our backs.”
The destruction stretched from Nipinnawasee to Ahwahnee to Oakhurst and “it took like 15 minutes,” Philley said.
Fire officials say the Junction fire in 2014 moved nearly as fast.