Graton’s all-volunteer fire department looks at hiring paid firefighters for the first time
Graton Fire is probably one of the most visible fire stations in west county — with its giant metal building and acre of parking, set amidst a Christmas tree farm on Highway 116, just north of Graton Road.
You may have wondered why the tiny town of Graton needed such a big fire department. Wonder no more: the answer is the Graton Fire Protection District is far larger than the town itself — it’s a two-armed behemoth that stretches from the northeastern edges of Sebastopol (down to High School Road) to the mountainous reaches of Green Valley Road outside of Forestville. Another arm of the district reaches across the laguna almost all the way to River Road.
The Graton Fire department has been an all-volunteer district since it was formed in the 1940s by sailors back from World War II. Now, 75 years later, that may be about to change.
The district has put a parcel tax measure, Measure F, on the Nov. 5 ballot, which would raise funds to hire professional firefighters for the first time.
The rate structure of the parcel tax is as follows:
• Residential parcel rates are $250 per parcel per year.
• Commercial parcel rates are $300 per parcel, plus 14 cents per square foot, per year.
• Agricultural parcel rates are $250 per parcel per year.
• Low value, miscellaneous properties, like PG&E’s transformer station, are $100 per parcel per year.
The parcel tax will raise approximately $800,000 and will be used to hire six fulltime firefighters.
Reasons for the change
Graton Fire Chief Bill Bullard said there are several reasons that the fire district’s board has decided to ask voters to approve a parcel tax at this time.
The first is increasing call volume. According to Bullard, Graton Fire gets 40% more calls than any other all-volunteer fire department in Sonoma County. The number of calls has been trending steadily upward over the years, and the district expects to break 800 calls this year.
At the same time, Bullard said, it’s gotten harder to cover the daytime hours with his volunteer staff of 25, most of whom, thanks to the high price of housing in west county, now work and live outside of the district.
“Sixty-five percent of our volunteers now live outside of the district, and 85% work outside of the district,” Bullard said. “At 800 calls a year, that’s two to three calls a day. That starts to become burdensome for people to leave work, especially if they’re working at a distance. And if we’re pulling somebody out of their paying job two hours a day, well, that’s really unreasonable to ask of an employer.”
As a result, Bullard said, during the day, it’s now taking an average of four and half minutes to get a fire engine out of the fire house, rather than the one-minute industry gold standard.
Bullard said the goal of the parcel tax is to have at least three people at the fire station 24/7 — two paid firefighters and one or two volunteers. He said this would speed up response times and save lives and property. It would allow the department to stop wild fires sooner before they grow out of control and to respond more quickly to the ever increasing number of medical emergencies, which now account for between 50 to 70% of the station’s calls.
What if voters say no
If voters turn down the parcel tax, Bullard said there are two options. The first is to simply accept that response times will be slower.
The second is that the board of the Graton Fire Protection District could consider annexation into a neighboring district that already has a parcel tax. If that happens, residents in the Graton Fire Protection District won’t have a choice about whether or not to pay that parcel tax — it will simply happen by fiat. And according to Bullard, the money that Graton residents would have to pay — and all the nice equipment that the Graton Fire district has accumulated over the years — could be moved to other parts of the larger district deemed more at risk.
Bullard hopes it won’t come to that.
This year’s fire season and beyond
Bullard said that, although west county has been lucky in terms of wildland fires this year, the last few months have seen an unusual number of structure fires, culminating in last week’s devastating house fire in Occidental, which seriously injured an elderly man. A week before that a man died in a mobile home fire on Cuneo Court off Laguna Road. Bullard’s team also responded to a grass fire near Hanna Winery on Occidental Road in the laguna area. And there’s still a month or so to go before the rains traditionally start.
Bullard said that the parcel tax is necessary to ensure that the Graton Fire Protection District will be able to respond quickly to emergencies like these in the future.
“For 70 years, Graton Fire has responded to every fire and medical emergency while not asking for a dedicated tax,” he said. “With the number of emergencies increasing every year, and with the severity of wildfires, floods and other disasters on the rise, we need help to ensure we can respond 24/7 when we’re called.”