More Sonoma County firefighters will be on duty this summer and fall during extreme weather and wind periods following a vote Monday by the Board of Supervisors approving $900,000 for additional staff.
Supervisors, citing the need for action following last fall’s catastrophic and deadly October fires, also agreed to spend $800,000 to recruit and retain firefighters countywide in an attempt to bolster the flagging ranks of fire agency volunteers.
The $1.7 million already had been allocated in the county budget for fire services but Monday’s vote directed how it would be spent, based on recommendations from the county’s Fire Services Advisory Commission.
The county this year has given about $3.5 million to fire services. But that’s far short of what is needed to fill gaps in Sonoma County’s firefighting network, riddled with too many agencies, many with varying problems including diminishing budgets, aging engines and fewer volunteers. In some rural areas. neighboring departments pick up calls, extending response times.
Fire officials will ask supervisors later this summer to consider a far more costly plan aimed at bringing fire agencies countywide to more uniform standards, including putting paid staff in rural areas with a goal of 10‑minute response times. It’s estimated to cost more than $20 million annually and potentially far more.
County leaders have floated the idea of a sales tax increase, but some fire officials fear that could clash with efforts by five fire agencies planning or considering a property tax increase on the fall ballot.
“We need a system that is more than just a response to calls. It’s providing an insurance network throughout the county to make sure we’re prepared when bad things happen,” said Jim Colangelo, Sonoma County’s interim manager for fire and emergency services.
With last October’s catastrophic and deadly wildfires looming in memory and from the reports they face on a daily basis on housing, fire services and other county needs left in the fires’ aftermath, supervisors sounded unified in seeking faster action.
“I feel like we’re handing out ibuprofen when we need open heart surgery,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said, frustrated at the need, limited funding and time it likely will take to make major changes countywide to improve service. “The main questions now are ‘what would be a reasonable level of service in Sonoma County?’ and ‘how do we fund that and how do we fund that as quickly as we possibly can?’ ”
It’s time to quit cobbling together smaller fixes, Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.
“I know how I felt over the weekend with the warm high winds, looking at brown hills,” Zane said. “We’ve got to be prepared.”
Board Chair James Gore for months has said some kind of tax measure will be necessary to make the big fixes happen.
But Monday, he also favored progress by mirroring the county’s current plan for road work — not one‑time funding but pledging millions of dollars each year.
“We’ve built it into the budget people can count on.”
While supervisors and fire officials wrestle with longer-term fire needs, the “red flag” pilot program — which will place more firefighters on duty when warm winds arrive, humidity dips and temperatures soar — can be implemented immediately.
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who outlined the program for supervisors, said the ability to staff more firefighters during worrisome weather will be key to getting out ahead of future blazes.