Calif. fire department dissolved; volunteers refuse to leave

The LAFCO vote to dissolve the district signaled the end of the last volunteer fire department in the region


J. Harry Jones
The San Diego Union-Tribune

JULIAN, Calif. — Lawsuits, locked doors and a police presence disrupted what was hoped to be a smooth transition in Julian as the county’s last volunteer fire department officially became a professional force.

On Monday morning, the county legally took control of the 87-square-mile Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District even as legal challenges mount and ill will simmers in the tourist-friendly mountain community in northeast San Diego County.

The LAFCO vote to dissolve the district signaled the end of the last volunteer fire department in the region. (Photo/Julian Cuyamaca Volunteer FireFighter Association)
The LAFCO vote to dissolve the district signaled the end of the last volunteer fire department in the region. (Photo/Julian Cuyamaca Volunteer FireFighter Association)

By Monday afternoon, a county transition team comprising a locksmith, a facilities manager and an information technologist were denied access to the main Julian volunteer fire station off state Route 79 by a group of volunteers and supporters who locked themselves inside the building.

At day’s end, the county was waiting for a court order allowing the transition team in to assess the condition of the building, change the locks and possibly force the volunteers out.

“This may be a multi-day thing,” county Spokeswoman Alex Bell said.

That all came after a Monday morning unanimous 8-0 vote of the Local Agency Formation Commission to honor the results of a recent special election in the Julian fire district in which 54 percent of the registered voters opted to go with the county.

The LAFCO vote to dissolve the district signaled the end of the last volunteer fire department in the region. Within an hour of the decision, County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham ordered the transition team, accompanied by sheriff’s deputies, to take control of the volunteer’s station and equipment off state Route 79, but the volunteers inside refused to leave.

The team, once inside, will determine the condition of the station and its equipment in anticipation of upgrades being made before county firefighters move in within the next two weeks. Meanwhile, Cal Fire firefighters and paramedics, under contract with the county, will continue to respond to emergencies in the area from their two existing nearby local stations.

During the LAFCO meeting, attorney Cory Briggs, hired recently by the volunteer department’s board of directors to fight the county takeover, said a court decision that came out Friday nullifies the reorganization.

Briggs said allegations made in a lawsuit last year were upheld by a Superior Court judge last week. The lawsuit claimed the original decision made by the fire board’s directors in May to seek dissolution was done in violation of the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law.

Because the original action was illegal, Briggs said, everything that has happened since, including a September vote of LAFCO to dissolve the department and the results of the mail-in ballot special election that were certified last week, are null and void.

“You have no legal authority to do what you are proposing to do today,” Briggs told the commission. LAFCO is made up of various elected officials, including Supervisors Jim Desmond and Dianne Jacob, and is charged with overseeing special districts (fire, water, sanitation, etc.) in the county.

“A lawsuit is being filed this morning. I suspect we’ll end up in court in the next couple days on some sort of (temporary restraining order) or injunction,” Briggs said.

Oddly, Briggs found himself on the losing end of the Friday court decision, having been hired by the volunteer board just a few weeks ago to represent them. The current volunteer board opposes the takeover; however, the previous board wanted it to happen.

The lawsuit over the Brown Act was filed on behalf of the Julian Volunteer Fire Company Association against the volunteer district’s former board.

Briggs represented the losing side last week, then used the judgment stemming from the loss as his main argument as to why LAFCO couldn’t order the dissolution.

A spokeswoman for the county said county lawyers are aware of the legal oddity and are preparing their response.

Neither Briggs nor fire company association attorney Craig Sherman responded to calls Monday afternoon.

During the meeting, several people from Julian told the commission that the county fire authority and its Cal Fire employees don’t know the backcountry area well enough and that there have been several incidents recently when they got lost responding to medical calls. They said the commission’s decision will put lives at risk.

On Monday, Mecham said a Sheriff’s Department lieutenant went to the volunteer station Monday morning and told them there had been reports of false alarms with fictitious addresses being called into Cal Fire and that they needed to cease.

Mecham was asked at the meeting by Supervisor Desmond if he was sure the Julian area would receive the same or better emergency response services under county control.

“Unequivocally, yes,” Mecham responded. One woman in the audience of about 75 people then yelled out, “people will die.”

It was last May when the volunteer board of directors at the time voted to seek dissolution after years of financial struggles.

In September, the commission voted to cede control to the Fire Authority -- which in the past decade has consolidated all of the volunteer departments under one umbrella in reaction to the 2003 and 2007 firestorms that began in the backcountry and burned into urban areas causing great devastation and death.

But 26 percent of the area’s voters filed official protest petitions forcing a first-of-its-kind special election last month with the county prevailing. Dianne Jacob, who has been championing the Fire Authority for a decade, made the motion to dissolve the department once and for all at Monday’s meeting.

“As we sit here today, the LAFCO process has been followed,” she said. “The legal issues are separate and will be fought out in court. (At the last LAFCO meeting) those that were in opposition came down. You asked for a vote and you got a vote. And the vote may not have turned out the way you wanted it to turn out, but all those who were registered voters in Julian had the opportunity to vote and we have the results today.”

Yet another legal challenge concerns the land that the volunteer station sits on.

If the county takes over, it will assume control of the station, built in 2016, and pay off the million-dollar-plus debt still owed for its construction.

But the deed to the property states that should the Julian department no longer operate a station on the land, the property will revert to a Native American land trust. The county believes that as long as a fire station, no matter what agency controls it, is on the property, the conditions of the deed will apply. An attorney working for LAFCO said Monday the county believes the deed should transfer without problem.

After the results of the vote were known, but not yet certified, the county issued a press release listing the advantages the community will receive being part of the Fire Authority.

“The Julian and Cuyamaca communities will receive a three-person Advanced Life Support paramedic fire engine, staffed by CAL FIRE firefighters, allowing for life-saving medical response when the Julian ambulance is unavailable. The County will also pay for year-round staffing at Station #50 in Julian and CAL FIRE Station #51 in Cuyamaca at no cost to the community. The ballot measure also eliminates a $50 annual fee currently charged to area residents to pay off a loan incurred by the district to build the Julian fire station mortgage.”

The news release also stated that a significant benefit of the merger is a potential decrease in homeowner’s insurance premiums. “Communities are assigned an ‘ISO (Insurance Services Office) fire score’ that calculates how well the local fire department is prepared and able to respond during an emergency. A lower score typically means lower insurance costs. The current ISO score for the Julian and Cuyamaca communities is 5/9, and is expected to reduce to 3/3X under the Fire Authority, after approval by ISO.”

The county is taking steps to allow current Julian volunteer firefighter reserves to continue volunteering exclusively in Julian and Cuyamaca alongside the career firefighters.

Mecham on Monday said 11 applications have so far been received. The volunteers will have to pass a background check and complete various training requirements.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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