By J Harry Jones UT June 10 2013
PALOMAR MOUNTAIN — The Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department is being squeezed by the county and is facing a looming deadline that, no matter what happens, will change the way fire protection is handled in the close-knit community.
Two weeks ago, after an annual pancake breakfast fundraiser, roughly one-quarter of the permanent population of Palomar Mountain packed the volunteer fire station to vent and wring hands.
“We are different. We are an island,” Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department Chief George Lucia told the gathering. “Our closest mutual aid is 45 minutes down the hill. We are not the same. One size does not fit all.”
The department, along with similar small firefighting agencies in San Diego’s backcountry, must decide by June 31 whether to sign a new contract with the San Diego County Fire Authority that would shift control from volunteer departments to Cal Fire, the state agency that works in tandem with the Fire Authority.
If the rural departments don’t sign new, more stringent contracts, they stand to lose all tax dollars that make it possible for them to exist.
The Fire Authority is insisting that Palomar staff its engines with Cal Fire employees. Volunteers could still be part of the unit if they can pass the physical requirements, but control will be taken away from the Palomar fire board and its volunteer chief and placed in the hands of Cal Fire.
Giving up local control is what worries many on the mountain. For instance, the Fire Authority is insisting that, under the new contract, it must be able to send Palomar assets elsewhere during an emergency, even if it leaves the mountain uncovered.
“They’re telling me I must use San Diego County Fire Authority approved staff,” Lucia, who is the unpaid chief but works full time for the Valley Center Fire Protection District as its fire marshal.
“They’re telling me I can’t hire local community volunteers. I say to them that without my local community volunteers that live here, sleep here and have a stakeholder’s interest in this community, I can’t guarantee that I can cover a call.”
The Palomar department was established in the 1970s after the county ended a contract with the state to provide rural fire protection. Since then, trained volunteers have been protecting the 350 or so residents of the mountain.
Last year, the volunteers were called out 128 times. Most of the calls were for medical aid, and many of those were to help motorcyclists who had crashed along South Grade Road on the weekends. When a call goes out, pagers go off and volunteers come running to the station. It’s a system that has been in place for decades.
But in 2008, after the devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007, the county established the Fire Authority with the goal of professionalizing rural fire departments. The majority of backcountry departments joined the agency.
Most rural stations are now manned by Cal Fire professionals. Some departments, like Palomar and the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, have held out but now are feeling pressure as the county tries to unite all the departments under one umbrella.
Sarah Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Fire Authority, said negotiations with several districts are ongoing.
She said the bottom line is that if Palomar doesn’t sign a contract, its funding would be stopped. She said the department would lose about $85,000 in tax money that goes for fire protection plus an additional $30,000 the county gives the department in augmentation funds.
Gordon said the Fire Authority does not comment on ongoing contract negotiations.
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