No more contract with Fresno. Who’s fighting fires in Kerman, Biola and west of 99?

For 12 years, fire protection services in Kerman, Biola and a good chunk of Fresno County west of Highway 99 were provided by the Fresno Fire Department under a contract between the North Central Fire Protection District and the city of Fresno.

But what was to have been a 30-year marriage of the two agencies soured in 2017, and the district and city agreed to a divorce of sorts that became effective at the beginning of this month.

On July 1, the North Central Fire Protection District – originally established in 1947 – took back control of its three stations, fire engines, trucks and other equipment, and officially resumed responsibility for fire services in its 230-square-mile service area west of Highway 99.

“Even though we had the contract with Fresno for labor, the district board was still active and it has its own tax base that is governed by the board,” North Central Chief Tim Henry told The Bee.

“Everything that was here, from the stations, engines and trucks all the way down to the drinking glasses in the kitchen, belong to the district. … So when the contract ended on July 1, our new firefighters walked into the stations, shook hands with the Fresno firefighters, and took over.”

Henry began his firefighting career with North Central in 1978, then moved on to Cal Fire for a few years. He joined the Fresno Fire Department in 1983 and rose through the ranks, retiring as deputy chief in 2015 after 32 years with the department. He was lured out of retirement by North Central in July 2018 to take over as its new chief and guide the district’s efforts to rebuild staffing.

“I grew up out here, my parents lived out here, and I started my career here,” Henry said. “It felt like it was a good fit to get it started again. If I didn’t have a personal connection to the district, I would have said no.”

“In the past 12 months, we’ve hired about 60 employees, everyone from support staff to 48 firefighters, and gone through the process of purchasing protective equipment for our staff,” he said.

The rebuilt department’s first trial by fire was July 19, when North Central firefighters responded to an apartment fire near the intersection of Hulbert and Dennett avenues, just across the city limit from the city of Fresno west of Highway 99 between Olive and Belmont avenues.

“That property backed up to the city, but it’s still in our district,” Henry said. Through mutual aid agreements among emergency agencies, one Fresno Fire Department engine responded to the fire, one truck came from the Fresno County Fire Department, and the rest of the response was North Central,” Henry said.

A messy separation

In mid-2017, only 10 years into the 30-year contract, the Fresno City Council voted to terminate its agreement with the North Central District. At that time, then-City Manager Bruce Rudd said the district’s contract payments to the city fell short of covering Fresno’s costs to provide the service, to the tune of about $1.9 million a year. The shortfall prompted the city to seek renegotiated terms.

“We’re just looking to break even,” Rudd said then. “This isn’t sustainable. … The city cannot be in a position to subsidize fire protection for the city of Kerman and county residents.”

But North Central’s response to the city essentially amounted to saying a deal is a deal. “It appears that the city finds the services more expensive to provide than it prefers, or perhaps than it estimated when it negotiated the agreement with the district in 2006,” wrote Ken Price, an attorney for the district, in a 2017 letter to Rudd.

After the district sued the city over its unilateral decision to cancel the contract, the two sides ironed out an 18-month extension of the contract through June 30, 2019 – time for the district and the city to continue to negotiate, or for the district to explore its options.

By mid-2018, “the board decided that it would be most cost-effective and the best level of service to hire its own people back,” Henry said.

Not quite from scratch

North Central budgeted about $1.3 million for the task of hiring firefighters and staff for its department, Henry said, and likely will spend about $8.5 million for operations this year.

The district hired fire captains and engineers from other agencies where they were already at those ranks; new firefighters were also hired and went through a fire academy program that began in May.

Renovations also were made to a fire station near Shields and Grantland avenues to return it to service after it was unused by the city under the contract period.

Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis said her department will continue to provide fire and emergency medical response for the county pockets in northwest Fresno under a three-year agreement.

“The reality is that the city of Fresno fire resources are the most proximate to these … county residents, providing them quick response times for emergencies,” she said.

“It’s a big lift to stand up your own department from scratch, with both opportunity and threats,” Donis added.

“We wish (North Central) the best and always safety for their members going forward.”

The 46 firefighters that the Fresno Fire Department had assigned to North Central have been absorbed back into the city to fill vacancies and create a new fire company, said Mark Standriff, a spokesman for the city of Fresno.

The additional company increased the city’s on-duty fire staffing to a minimum of 80 personnel daily.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.