The County gave Shelter Valley another truck. But it’s a bulky gas guzzler, says Sanders, and his colleagues agree. “The ladder is so high on the truck,” says Tony Mayors, “that you’d have to be seven feet tall to pull it out.”
Does the County prefer, I ask, that you use that truck?
“Yes, it’s got their name real big on the door,” says Mayors, laughing. “Our trucks have a small Shelter Valley logo.”
What would have happened if the volunteer departments did not sign the county contracts? “They would have taken our equipment and buildings,” Gerald Sanders tells me, “and replaced our volunteers with Cal Fire firefighters. Of course, the professionals would fight the fires as well as we have. But we have a record of having never missed a call out here and never having anyone get hurt. The Shelter Valley department covers a 582-square-mile area, so that’s not too bad. And one thing we do know better than outsiders is the terrain, all the little canyons. We’ve been to every one of them.
“But only 10 percent of our calls are fire related,” Sanders continues. “The rest are emergency rescues. For stopping fire, the biggest need in the backcountry is brush control around people’s properties. If the County wanted to help us, they would do more of that. But they don’t have the personnel to do it.”
I ask the County’s Gig Conaughton how brush management is handled. “The County has an ongoing relationship with Cal Fire regarding brush and weed control,” he writes me by email. “We loan budgeted equipment (trucks) to Cal Fire, which provides manpower to do inspections. Our County Code Enforcement follows up if abatement is called for.”
Ron Thornhill used to drive Shelter Valley’s fire engine. Not anymore. He decided not to take the physical even though he’s 50 and believes he would pass it. Thornhill is the angriest of the men I speak with. His biggest concern is the money the County is spending on its new fire authority.
“The volunteers were doing a very good job,” says Thornhill, “and doing it for nothing. I can’t tell you the number of small fires we stopped before they got going. If they reach the top of the hill and there’s a Santa Ana wind, you’re going to get the next Cedar fire. But that never happened on our watch.
“Now the County comes along and is going to spend $15 million and not do any better than we’ve been doing. And we did it free.
“I heard the County is renting a house for Cal Fire firefighters who will come in here from the outside and work out of our station. That’s new salaries they’ll pay and new benefits packages and new workmen’s comp payments they’ll make with taxpayer dollars. Today, I went down and turned in my equipment. No more firefighting for me.” Thornhill is not the only one. Of 12 original volunteers, 6 decided to take the physical. Among those 6, 2 passed to become County-approved firefighters.
I confirm with the County’s Conaughton that two Cal Fire firefighters, one an officer, will live in a rented building at Shelter Valley. He wants to emphasize, however, that the new guys will become members of the Shelter Valley community.
It’s a touchy point for operations chief Tony Mayors. “Yeah,” he says, “they say the County can generate money better than our barbecue fund-raisers. But we care about this community, and the community cares about us. I’m going to feel terrible if I have to let them down. And it won’t be the same not making the hamburgers.”
Meanwhile, Cal Fire firefighters have been rotating in and out of Shelter Valley, making it difficult for local volunteers to help them learn locations. And fiscal reality may be setting in. In talks with their new supervisors, chiefs Sanders and Mayors have learned that the County probably can’t afford to keep two Cal Fire firefighters permanently stationed in Shelter Valley. Since the local volunteer force has been “decimated,” in the words of Sanders, new volunteers will have to come from outside the area, and none will be officers. The Mount Laguna Volunteer Fire Department is already sending down new volunteers.
There may be hope that some of the lost Shelter Valley volunteers might still contribute. There has been a tiny bit of progress, Sanders tells me. “The County agreed to allow us mediation on points of dispute. But they’ve reserved the right to walk away from talks after ten days. Which means that if they don’t like something we want, they can wait ten days."