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Why I’m voting for Measure G

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Over the last five years, Sonoma County residents saw firsthand how the decades-old predictions by scientists of more frequent and destructive wildfires due to global climate change have become an ongoing reality.

First came the deadly Lake County wildfires of 2015, followed two years later by an unprecedented spate of fires here in Sonoma County which killed two dozen people and razed 5,300 homes in Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley in less than 24 hours.

In 2018, the Camp Fire in Butte County destroyed 18,000 homes, becoming the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history and blanketing Sonoma County with a thick cloud of toxic smoke for two weeks. Last year, the Kincade fire became the largest wildfire ever recorded in Sonoma County, laying waste to hundreds of homes and businesses and very nearly consuming the city of Windsor.

Were it not for the fact that it happened to be the only major fire burning in California at the time, allowing many nearby agencies to render crucial mutual aid, the Kincade fire could easily have leaped across Highway 101 and burned through western Sonoma County all the way to the coast. As a precaution, more than 180,000 people were evacuated for days.

This is the new normal in Northern California.

Yet against this monstrous threat, Sonoma County struggles with an antiquated crazy quilt of fire protection services ranging from municipal fire departments like that in Petaluma to dozens of perpetually underfunded and understaffed volunteer fire departments and fire districts often forced to use outmoded equipment, which render them incapable of offering adequate protection for residents during a major fire event.

This became horribly apparent during the 2017 Tubbs and Nuns fires. As a result, county supervisors and area fire chiefs began discussions over how to better fund fire suppression services and increase overall efficiency by consolidating departments countywide. Fire chiefs, whose passion had traditionally been focused on protecting and serving their own communities, set aside such parochial views and began looking at the bigger picture.

From their efforts has come a practical solution: Measure G on next Tuesday’s ballot asks voters to approve a half-cent sales tax countywide to raise an estimated $51 million annually to enhance fire suppression and prevention and emergency medical services.

To learn about how Measure G would work, I spoke with Jason Boaz, president of the Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association, who told me that Measure G will fund improved emergency warning systems, hire an additional 200 firefighters and fire prevention officers to respond to wildfires and medical emergencies and enhance vegetation management programs aimed at stopping fires before they begin. It’s a welcome and well-designed strategy to protect lives and property.

Boaz said that fire departments throughout the county act as a regional network and must rely upon one another for help during fire emergencies.

“We’re really only as strong as our neighboring districts,” he explained, noting that Measure G is designed to strengthen the entire county firefighting network partly by adding both staff and equipment to the smaller rural fire districts and volunteer fire companies that lack such resources today. Because those districts and departments surround cities like Petaluma, equalizing the service levels will make Petaluma more resilient, he said.

For the rural fire departments to receive the tax revenue, Measure G mandates that they work towards consolidating with nearby agencies to increase their efficiency.

About a year before the matter of consolidating countywide fire services was becoming a hot topic, in 2016 Petaluma Fire Chief Leonard Thompson took on the added responsibility as chief of the neighboring Rancho Adobe Fire District serving the City of Cotati, Penngrove and the sprawling rural area in between.

According to Chief Thompson, Measure G will benefit Petaluma in many ways, primarily with a $1.9 million annual cash infusion to help meet the continually rising calls for emergency services from residents which are increasing at about 5% each year. With no additional resources, the necessary increased response times are putting people at risk.

Thompson added that the measure will help the city hire additional emergency responders, purchase a new fire engine and ambulance and relocate its main downtown fire station which, having been built in 1937, is unable to house some modern firefighting apparatus. A new fire station could also be built in the northwest part of town, thus reducing response times to residents there.

The Wilmar Volunteer Fire Department, which serves 4,000 residents immediately west and south of Petaluma, will also benefit by Measure G. According to Wilmar Chief Mike Mickelson, the measure would fund sleeping quarters for staff so they are able to get to emergencies more quickly while also enabling the hiring of some paid firefighters and paramedics.

Mickelson confirmed that he is working with the Gold Ridge Fire District in western Sonoma County on an eventual consolidation of his department with those serving the communities of Two Rock, Valley Ford, Bodega, Bloomfield and Lakeville.

Every community in Sonoma County will benefit from improved and more efficient fire services if Measure G passes, said Mickelson.

But what if the requisite two-thirds of voters fail to approve Measure G? “Right now, there isn’t a Plan B,” said Mickelson.

Sonoma County is concluding its driest February in more than 100 years. If we don’t see significant rainfall in March, we’ll be in for an early and extended fire season that could make 2017 and 2019 look tame by comparison.

I’m voting for Measure G and I hope you will too.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)

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