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Rural Rancho Adobe Fire District adapts to fewer resources

Rancho Adobe Fire Captain Larry Martinez surveys a fire on Sonoma Mountain on Nov. 27.

Matt Brown / For the Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 9:45 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 4:00 p.m.

The firefighters at the Rancho Adobe fire station in Penngrove were inspecting their gear when the emergency dispatch came through — a bush fire somewhere on Sonoma Mountain. In less than two minutes, the three firemen were dressed in their turnout coats and pants, loaded into the fire engine and were barreling north on Petaluma Hill Road toward the blaze.

Facts

Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District
* Established in 1993 when Cotati and Penngrove volunteer fire departments merged.
* Operates three fire stations: Penngrove, Cotati and Liberty Road.
* Serves 25,000 people in 89 square miles.
* Handles 1,800-2,000 emergency calls per year.
* Operates on an annual budget of $3.3 million.
* Employs 15 full-time and 12 part-time firefighters.
Source: Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District.

Arriving first on scene, the crew discovered an unwieldy yet controlled burn. Orange flames danced about the downed oak branches, producing clouds of smoke visible from Highway 101.

After telling the property owner to monitor the fire until it went out and explaining the need to register controlled burns with the authorities, the crew mounted their engine and headed back to the Penngrove station.

“The Cotati station would have responded to that fire,” said firefighter Steve Chavez. “They're closer.”

But the Cotati station, one of three in the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District including the Liberty Road station, was closed that day.

One of those three stations will now be closed each day on a rotating basis, one of the cost saving measures that the already frugal district was forced to make when voters rejected a $60 parcel tax in November. The necessary cuts to make up for a budget deficit will mean longer emergency response times and could put residents' safety at risk, according to Rancho Adobe officials.

“What it means for the safety of people in the district is that, in some cases, there are going to be longer response times,” said Fire Chief Frank Treanor. “I want to make a cut that helps, but I don't want to further compromise safety. As situations occur, people will step up.”

Measure Z would have levied an additional tax of $60 per parcel for eight years. That would have been added to the current rate of $40 per home, one of the lowest fire district rates in the state, which hasn't changed in 19 years. The measure, which needed 66.6 percent of the vote to pass, received 62.8 percent, according to election officials.

Treanor thinks that a new state fire protection fee of $150 for residents in unincorporated county areas dissuaded some people from voting for Rancho Adobe's tax.

“(The new state fee) is a pass-through,” said Treanor, who has been chief since 2006. “The state uses the fee to pay off its deficit. The legislature should be reprimanded for that.”

Besides closing each station two days per week and cutting back on part-time firefighter hours, the district may need to borrow money from the county to make up its $387,000 budget shortfall, Treanor said. This is on top of other cost-saving measures such as switching to a cheaper healthcare plan, changing worker's compensation plans and keeping salaries 22 percent less than the county average.

“We've been frugal all the way along,” Treanor said. “As a taxpayer, I want the biggest bang for the buck. I never forget it's the people's money.”

District firefighters are getting used to the changes, which could mean more work for them as they try to protect a large area with fewer resources.

“We are adapting,” said Captain Larry Martinez. “My area of responsibility just doubled. It's the new reality. I don't know if it's going to be unsafe. For us it just means longer response times.”

Some district residents translate longer response times into compromised safety. Residents used to living minutes away from the nearest fire station may now have to wait for a longer emergency response from one of the other two stations.

“The fact that they are closing firehouses is scary,” said Greg Wittenmeier, a retired bus driver from Penngrove, who voted for Measure Z. “I don't think you should mess with fire protection.”

(Contact Matt Brown at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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