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Grand Jury: HumCo Needs Regional Fire District

A Grand Jury report echoes what firefighting officials have been telling Humboldt County — that rural fire departments have substandard equipment, are under-funded and often respond to areas outside of their service districts.

Orleans Volunteer Fire Department
Orleans Volunteer Fire Department

The status of rural fire safety is investigated in a Humboldt County Grand Jury report released last week. According to the report, reliance on local fundraising and taxation is “no longer tenable” as the county’s industrial and commercial base has diminished and service district ratepayers foot the bills for responses in “no district” areas.

In noting that “several California counties have had the foresight to create a regional model with a countywide fire district and a county fire and emergency services officer,” the report recommends that the county pursue formation of a regional fire protection district.

That would include establishment of a county “fire and emergency services officer” whose work would be similar to the sheriff’s supervision of public safety.

The report contrasts that approach with what the county has now — 42 separate firefighting agencies, with sources of revenue ranging from “bake sale” fundraising to taxation through fire protection or community services districts.

One of the Grand Jury’s recommendations has already been carried out — the report seconds the Humboldt County Fire Chiefs Association’s request that 20% of Measure Z sales tax revenue be committed to firefighting services.

The Board of Supervisors went beyond that, approving the spending of $2.2 million of the coming year’s anticipated $8.9 million in Measure Z revenue for firefighting services at a June 8 budget hearing.

The chiefs association’s 20% benchmark was requested at the time the report was written but the association’s ultimate request was for $2.6 million in Measure Z funding. In approving the lesser amount, supervisors noted that equipment purchases will likely be less expensive than the association estimated once competitive bidding is done.

In its discussion of the funding conundrums, the Grand Jury calls attention to a lack of implementation of a countywide plan to consolidate, expand and create fire protection districts. The out-of-district response issue was well-described by various firefighting officials when the chiefs association presented its annual report to supervisors on May 12.

The Board of Supervisors has appointed a Fire Services Subcommittee with Board Chair Estelle Fennell and Supervisor Virginia Bass as members. At last May’s meeting, Fennell acknowledged the need for expanding districts and creating new ones, saying, “We are definitely working on it — and we need to.”

In outlining its recommendations, the Grand Jury sets a five-year timeline for having “all Humboldt County residents covered by a fire and emergency services district.”

The report also urges the county to “go beyond the Measure Z temporary funding and move to a permanent funding model for a regional fire and emergency services district” led by a director of fire and emergency services.

Finally, the report recommends that the county lobby for changes in state law “to better reflect the funding needs of today’s rural counties.”

The Board of Supervisors will issue responses to the report. The Grand Jury also invites the chiefs association, the county’s Fire Safe Council, Senator Mike McGuire and Assemblymember Jim Wood to respond to the report’s findings and recommendations.

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