Three west county fire districts have parcel tax measures on the Nov. 5 ballot, including Gold Ridge Fire Protection District (Measure E), Graton Fire Protection District (Measure F) and Occidental Community Services, which runs the Occidental Fire Department (Measure C). Over the last few weeks, Sonoma West has talked to the chiefs of each of these districts about why their districts are asking voters to approve new parcel taxes. This article about Occidental is the final article in this three-part series. You can find the others online at sonomawest.com.
Occidental’s all-volunteer fire department seeks to hire paid firefighters for the first time
For more than 100 years, the all-volunteer Occidental Fire Department has responded to fires and medical emergencies in the steep and forested region around the small town of Occidental. Sitting smack in the middle of every other fire district in west county, the Occidental Fire District protects approximately 2,500 people in 33 square miles.
Driven by a decline in daytime volunteers and an increased call volume, Occidental Fire has put a parcel tax measure, Measure C, on the Nov. 5 ballot, with the goal of hiring two full-time firefighters to supplement its roster of volunteers.
Measure C’s parcel tax rate structure is as follows:
• $200 per parcel per year on residences (plus another $100 for properties with an additional residential structure like a granny unit);
• $300 per parcel per year for commercial properties, plus up to 14 cents per square foot;
• $100 per parcel per year for other land.
Levied on the district’s 1,256 parcels, the Measure C parcel tax would raise approximately $250,000 for the district.
Measure C isn’t the district’s first parcel tax. The average residential voter in the district already pays $80 a year in fire district parcel taxes. The Measure E parcel tax would be added on top of this, which means the average residential owner would pay $280 a year.
According to Occidental Fire Chief Ron Lunardi, Occidental Fire will use the money to hire two full-time firefighters to staff the daytime hours, Monday through Friday, which the district has found increasingly difficult to staff with volunteers. He said he’s hoping to hire from within the district— and his two top candidates have worked 8 to 10 years for the department as volunteers.
A decline in the number of volunteers and an increase in call volume
“We started noticing a decline in daytime-available firefighters a couple of years ago, but in the last year and a half, it's gotten kind of critical,” Lunardi said, noting that his usual volunteer staff of 25 has shrunk to 18 people, most of whom work out of the area.
“Last year, I would say there was probably 12 times where we responded with just one person on the truck, which simply isn’t safe,” he said. “For the last 30 to 40 years at Occidental, we had a minimum requirement of two people per engine.”
Lunardi said the decline in daytime volunteers has been driven in part by the high housing costs.
“The housing prices out here have gone through the roof, and most of the people work out of the area now,” he said. “The kind of young volunteers we used to depend on just can’t afford to live out here anymore.”
At the same time, an aging population of residents has pushed the number of calls ever higher.
“For years, we’d been running an average of 260 to 270 calls a year. Then in 2017, we jumped to 350. In 2018, we were at 346. This year we’re on pace to be close to 400 calls.”
A continuing commitment to a culture of volunteerism
Lunardi stressed that his department would continue to need volunteer firefighters — not merely to cover nights and weekends but as an integral part of the district.
He said he admires the way the Gold Ridge Fire District has integrated paid fire fighters with their volunteers.
“They have the mentality that the paid guys are there to support the volunteers and help with the volunteer program, and I really admire that,” he said.
“We're going to continue recruitment for qualified volunteers,” he said. “Our next big goal is retention. We want to make sure we keep the people we have. One of the ways we do that here is we're offering that we will pay for any kind of class you want to take training-wise that will benefit the fire department.”
He’s also hoping to raise the stipend for volunteers, which now stands at $8 for a fire call and $12.50 for a drill, though that will not come out of the parcel tax.
The times they are a changin’
The Lunardi family has a long history with the Occidental’s all-volunteer fire department. Lunardi’s father was fire chief of the department for many years, and his daughter was a volunteer firefighter before she moved out of the area. Although he’s spent his life in an all-volunteer force, he doesn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning the changes that have overtaken the fire service.
“I joined the fire department when I was 14 years old, and my dad was the chief,” Lunardi said. “I've seen the changes in the fire services. And, you know, things change, and you have to go with it. Call volumes increase, and you have to start being concerned about safety and the services we provide for our community.”
Like other local departments, he’s watched the consolidation going on elsewhere in Sonoma County, most recently with the Monte Rio District being annexed into Sonoma County Fire.
He said he and the chiefs of other local districts are in regular communication. There’s even been some talk of creating a West County Fire District — but for now it’s just talk. But it’s also a measure of how much the local fire departments have grown to depend on one another, coming to each other’s aid for any large fire.
“We do work together in an all this,” Lunardi said. “If all three of our measures pass, it's going to benefit the entire community due to the fact that we’ll all have better staffing and faster response times. We hope that the community understands that and support us.”