Struggling Calif. fire department down to 4 volunteers

Fewer residents are willing or able to commit to the rigorous training and unpredictable time demands

By Randi Rossmann
The Press Democrat

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — Years back when someone wanted to be a volunteer firefighter in Sonoma County they could show up at the station, grab some gear and a few hours of basic training and learn on the job.

The loosely organized fire companies, thick with volunteers, were almost more like community clubs. There was camaraderie, social drinking and a sense of pride, dedication and community loyalty. The pride, dedication and camaraderie remain, but there is nothing easy anymore about enlisting as a volunteer firefighter.

“It’s so hard to become a volunteer. I think it scares people away,” said Bud Pochini, who became a Knights Valley volunteer 25 years ago after accidentally starting a small fire on his Highway 128 property. Volunteer firefighters put it out and told him he needed to join them.

It has been a fulfilling run. When younger, Pochini’s kids enjoyed watching their father drive by home behind the wheel of a fire engine. He feels good knowing his children value his example as a volunteer.

There also are tough memories: the call to the SIDS death of a young child and the fatal Thanksgiving Day crash. And calls at 3 a.m. when his workday starts at 5 are trying.

But Pochini is one of four remaining Knights Valley volunteers and the only one who also works in the valley. He often finds himself alone at calls, awaiting an engine from Dry Creek Rancheria, Calistoga or Geyserville.

“We’re basically out of business in Knights Valley,” said board member Steve Gould. The group is working on joining forces with the larger Geyserville fire district but meanwhile is negotiating with Calistoga fire and county fire administrators to improve fire and ambulance coverage for the valley, tucked below Mount St. Helena east of Healdsburg.

Should current countywide proposals eventually lead to fewer volunteer fire departments, the need for volunteers won’t go away. Stationing paid firefighters throughout the county’s rural pockets isn’t financially realistic. Instead, volunteers likely would become part of a larger regional fire district. Paid fire districts also use volunteers to beef up staffing.

But stiff requirements to become a volunteer firefighter make the role a challenging one, especially for people with families and jobs.

The commitment starts with 186 hours of firefighting training, said Greg Martin, operations chief for Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services, which administers the county’s 11 volunteer companies. After that, a volunteer must register 72 training hours a year to maintain skills; special skills, such as water or cliff rescues, take more time. Typically, drills take place at least twice a month. Beyond that, there is the donated time for regular fundraisers and the emergency calls at any time of the day.

In 2016, among the 11 companies, the number of calls ranged from sparely populated Fort Ross with 20 to Lakeville volunteers, who answered 220. About 700 calls came in four company areas — Wilmar, Bodega, San Antonio and Lakeville — primarily because major highways or busy county routes run through those jurisdictions.

There were about 40 calls for the rural region between east Santa Rosa and Calistoga where Don Fowler, 50, is a volunteer.

He was a high school student in the 1980s, washing dishes at his grandmother’s Triple S Ranch on Mountain Home Ranch Road when volunteers headed for a fire paused one night so he could jump on the rig and lend a hand. He later joined the Mountain Volunteer Fire Company north of Santa Rosa. The general contractor, vineyard manager and youth basketball coach has now been a volunteer firefighter for 15 years.

Fowler’s family, clients and even players understand he may have to answer a call at any time — and he has, including in the middle of a basketball game. Neighbors have helped out, providing day care when he’s had the kids and a call.

Deciding when to have a beer or glass of wine also is no longer a simple matter. As an engine driver, Fowler can’t be over 0.04 blood-alcohol percent, half the legal amount for the public.

His reward? Like other longtime volunteers, it’s a $300 gift card each year from the county and the gratitude of residents.

“This is no-paid fun,” said Fowler, Mountain Fire’s assistant chief.

Mountain’s volunteer roster lists 15 people but fewer than five are regular responders. Like Pochini, Fowler often is the only volunteer on a call, as was the case on a Saturday night last year when an intoxicated woman fell in her home, slicing open her head.

The closest available ambulance was in Rohnert Park and other fire agencies were busy. Fowler bandaged her up and waited more than 20 minutes for paramedics to arrive.

“There was blood everywhere,” he said. “It was a lot and I was by myself.”

Copyright 2017 The Press Democrat
All Rights Reserved

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