Last San Diego County volunteer FD approved for dissolution
The Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District is the last volunteer fire department in the county that responds to medical emergencies and structure fires in the area
By J. Harry Jones
The San Diego Union-Tribune
The Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, the last volunteer fire department in the county whose members respond to medical emergencies and structure fires in the area, on Monday got a step closer to being dissolved.
The members of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) unanimously agreed to move forward with plans to eliminate the volunteer department and absorb it into the San Diego Fire Authority.
LAFCO is responsible for overseeing changes to local governmental boundaries, including the formation, consolidation, merger and dissolution of special districts. It has countywide jurisdiction but is independent of county government and consists of various elected officials, district heads and citizens.
The meeting attracted a large crowd of well over 100 people, many of whom had made the long drive from Julian to downtown San Diego to protest the dissolution.
Commission members said they agreed that a unified backcountry fire department, staffed with professional firefighters, would serve the residents and visitors to the area better.
But nothing has been set in stone. The approval of the dissolution now sets up a "protest hearing" to be held on Oct. 16. If at that time at least 25 percent of registered voters in the Julian/Cuyamaca area, or 25 percent or more of property owners in the 53,000-acre area, have signed a form indicating they oppose the plans, then a public vote will be scheduled probably early next year.
And if 50 percent of the voters and/or property owners sign the forms, then the entire thing will be put to bed and the volunteer department will go on as before.
"I don't know if the community supports this recommendation that's before us today or not," Commission member and County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said. "When this issue broke out, I heard from a lot of property owners who don't live full time in Julian who have grave concerns about not having sustainable fire and emergency services available to them."
Many in the crowd wore T-shirts that read "JCFPD Backcountry Strong" to show their support for the volunteers and at least two dozen speakers, often filled with emotion, told the commission the community is better off if allowed to protect itself.
Many took exception to facts and statistics presented by the Fire Authority and members of the volunteer department's own board of directors about things such as staffing levels and emergency response times. Some of those opposed went so far as to ask for a criminal investigation of what they alleged were back-room deals and Brown Act violations committed by their directors and Fire Authority officials, allegation that were strongly denied by those under attack.
The Fire Authority, formed following the firestorms of the last decade to consolidate emergency services in the backcountry and professionalize rural fire coverage, has absorbed all the other volunteer departments in the county. Julian is the last holdout.
Late last year,the volunteer department's board of directors decided to turn down overtures from the county to dissolve, which led the Fire Authority to remove a paramedic fire engine, a water tender truck and other services they had given the department the past two years with the understanding they would seriously consider dissolution. On Jan. 1, the county removed the engine and cut other ties to Julian.
The next day, Board President Jack Shelver said, a shed fire that led to a grass fire near the outskirts of the jurisdiction began and there was nobody at the volunteer station to drive the fire truck to the scene.
That convinced three of the five board members to change their minds and vote for dissolution, thus setting up the LAFCO process.
Members of the commission said they understand the desire to retain local control but said safety is the number one concern.
"For me, this is not about jurisdictional lines or patches on the sleeve," Jacob said. In the end, she said, it's about response times and what best safeguards residents and the thousands of people who travel to the area for a day of shopping, sightseeing and camping.
Commissioner Bill Horn, also a member of the Board of Supervisors, agreed.
"This is all about public safety," Horn said. "...We are better off with a county operation that is coordinated."
He, Jacob and other commissioners said the issue should ultimately be decided by a community vote, and by their 7-0 decision to move forward, that public vote will now be possible.
One issue that remains unresolved and in dispute has to do with the land where the main Julian fire station sits just off state Route 79. 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. But others disagree and both sides said further discussions and investigation should take place.
(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune