Nicio Aguilera is blunt: “Nobody up here trusts the county. We don’t trust them, we don’t like them.” Aguilera, who spent 15 years fighting fires in Philadelphia and another 15 at a Carlsbad station, is one of a cadre of backcountry locals manning the front lines against what he calls a “power grab.”
“The county had approximately 18 fire stations which are theoretically volunteer,” Aguilera says. “Gradually, the county is gobbling them up in what they consider, I guess, to be a friendly way. They want to make them into a county fire department.”
However, the county says it’s not that simple. Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who kicked off the effort to consolidate area firefighting agencies in 2008, states, “The consolidation of local, rural fire agencies, including the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, with the County Fire Authority will make for a stronger, more cohesive firefighting force the next time a major wildfire hits. Consolidation has already helped provide around-the-clock fire protection in areas that previously had limited or no coverage.”
Even by governmental standards, the firefighting structure in San Diego County is Byzantine, rife with gerrymandering, overlaps, gaps, and an intrinsic absence of cohesion. But up in Julian, a lot of folks think it’s worth preserving.
“The local district is in charge of the structures,” Aguilera says. “Theoretically, if there’s a structure fire, we go first. Cal Fire is wild land. But during last week’s fire, Cal Fire — they were all gone. Station 52, Cuyamaca, gone. Station 50, Julian, gone — nobody there.”
The Julian squad consists of around 30 volunteers equipped with beepers; when they get the call, they go to the firehouse or meet up at the scene. To the unpaid blaze-busters and their supporters, it’s no less than an American tradition, and a ubiquitous one at that.
“In our country,” notes Aguilera, “approximately 80 percent of the fire departments are still volunteer, 20 percent paid. It’s sort of a surprising fact, but that’s the truth. A lot of small towns don’t have the budget for a paid fire department. They count on volunteers from the local community to come out, to be willing to serve and to be trained, whatever they have to go through to do the job. A lot of people like volunteer fire departments because it’s your neighbors comin’ to help you. It’s ‘old-style,’ right?”
According to Aguilera, at least some of the impetus to dissolve the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District has come from the district’s own “fire board.” Aguilera fumes, “The board told us we were $100,000 behind, our ambulance service wasn’t making any money, and that by the end of the year we’d be broke. They wanted us to vote to shut down our fire department and gave us one month to make up our mind. But, guess what? We did our own audit and we’re actually $50,000 in the black. A lot of people are suspicious of the fire board. They want to know what’s going on. How is it possible you can make a $150,000 error with a small budget to audit? People said, ‘Are you doing something weird?’” Aguilera contends that, in any event, the district’s alleged fiscal failings are a red herring. “The county doesn’t care; they just want to take over. It’s power. They want control of everything.”
As things stand, the county provides a water truck and $30,000 for each station for maintenance. According to Cal Fire spokesperson Sarah Gordon, Julian’s decision to opt out of the county scheme won’t change things. But Aguilera maintains that county officials have threatened to withdraw support, saying, in effect, “If you don’t come with us, we’re pulling everything out and you’re on your own.”
Does it matter who puts out a fire?
“That’s a good question,” says Aguilera. “When we had the Cedar Fire, we had local companies going out, assisting with the full-size strike teams that were here. It was very heart-rending, because you would actually come onto a road, see three or four structures on fire, and one of them happened to be your house. Are you going to save your house — or your neighbor’s house? Firefighters saved others’ houses, but let their own houses burn. There’s some emotional attachment to having your own folks there. When these big fires happen in rural country, the bottom line is that you’re not gonna be able to save everybody’s house. You just learn that. You might be on your own.”
Aguilera admits, “There are a lot of nuances to this. For instance, if I have volunteers doing the work, I expect that they’re gonna be trained, that they’re gonna be in halfway decent shape. We have a lot of guys who are good enough to do flagging. They’re nice enough to volunteer. They’re old-timers like myself, but maybe they’re not capable of going into a structure; maybe they don’t have all the training, maybe they don’t go to enough training. The county has offered, ‘If you let us man your stations, we’ll make sure there’s somebody there.’ They’re gonna man it with Cal Fire.” As for the locals, he laments, “They’ll still have the ability to participate, but [noting the stricter physical-fitness requirements for paid firefighters] under a whole different set of circumstances.”
Dianne Jacob denies that the county’s motivation is to usurp local control. “Bringing these agencies under the umbrella of the County Fire Authority is not about grabbing power, it’s about further minimizing the damage to people and property when disaster hits. I want to stress, however, that the final decision on consolidation rests with each community, not the county.”
As to whether the Julian volunteers can do a better job, Aguilera is equivocal. “I don’t know. That’s up to you. Is it better to have a volunteer fire department or one that’s paid? I’m not saying that the county coming in is the worst thing in the world; I’m just saying it’s worthwhile to have a discussion about it. I talked to the Cal Fire captain just yesterday and his opinion is, ‘Let Cal Fire take it over. If I was livin’ here, that’s what I’d like. You get better manning, better training, better equipment.’ So, there’s a variety of ways to look at this. There’s also a lot of discussion about this power play.”
Jack Shelver, president of the board of directors of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.