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Firefighters Say We’re Gambling With People’s Lives

OAKHURST – “As residents of this county we’ve been gambling that nobody in our public safety ranks would lose their life in the line of duty, and we can’t keep going on like we’ve been going.”

These are the sentiments expressed by firefighters and sheriff’s deputies as they gathered today at the old Blockbuster in Oakhurst before heading out to talk to residents about Measure L – the proposed public safety tax scheduled for the Mar. 7 special election.

“You wonder if your people, when you send them into harm’s way, are going to come back; if they’re going to go home to their families,” said career firefighter and long-time resident Troy Cheek, who talked about the difficulties of being placed in a position of responsibility for so many people and not being given the resources to do the job adequately and safely.

“Earlier in my career I slept on a couch at Station 12 when it was down by the library, for about six or seven years, because that’s all we had. We staffed it, we responded, we did what we could with what we had. We’re still doing things that way, and it’s not enough.”

Cheek says that people have a misconception about the new Madera County Fire Station in Oakhurst near True Value Hardware.

“We built that new fire station up here and it’s beautiful,” he said. “But everybody thinks there are four or five people on duty every day; not true. There is one person for Madera County Fire on duty at that station at any given time. Just one.”

When the Oakhurst Station 12 engine responds to a structure fire and there’s only one firefighter on that engine, and they are basically powerless to do anything until backup arrives.

“Let’s say it’s your house on fire, and you’re getting one person out of the Oakhurst station,” said firefighter Sean deAvila. “By policy, that person cannot enter that building. How are we supposed to fight fire? How are we supposed to save your house? How are we supposed to save your family, your animals, your belongings, everything that matters to you? We can’t do anything to help you, and the next piece of equipment is 20 minutes away — if they’re not out on another call. By that time it’s over, it’s too late.”

Local firefighter Chris Christopherson, who represents Cal Fire Local 2881, was clearly emotional as he spoke to the two dozen people who had volunteered to visit neighborhoods to talk about Measure L.

“We’re doing our jobs, but we don’t have the resources we need, and our lives are being put in danger. When is it enough? At what point is it not fair? I have small children. When is it not fair that my family doesn’t have a father for the rest of their lives? When is it not fair that Tyson [Sheriff’s Commander] doesn’t get to go home because he’s out doing evacuations of people who are refusing to leave? When is it not fair that people aren’t willing to step up and pay for the services that they expect?

“We all have that expectation, and they should give us the same courtesy, the same professionalism, and the same respect to support us — as the people who serve them. We’re talking about the Junction Fire, the Courtney Fire, the Sky Fire, the Corrine Fire, and the fact that this town has been evacuated twice in the last few years because of major disasters. What about the flooding that we have going on right now? We’re doing our job, but when is it going to break, and who’s going to lose their life?”

Troy Cheek echoed those sentiments, adding that first responders do get to a breaking point, with most Madera County stations unmanned, and only one firefighter on duty at the five that are staffed. Four of those staffed stations are in the Valley, the other is Oakhurst. (Chukchansi staffs Station 8 on Road 417 through an MOU with the County).

“How far am I supposed to push my people,” said Cheek, “when the citizens had a choice to think about how they’re going to support the people who support them? This is the closest in the 28 years of my career that I’ve ever seen we have the chance to put two people at a fire station. If this doesn’t pass, I will never see it in my career, probably never in my lifetime. This is the one and only chance that we have in the foreseeable future, to just make sure that our people are safe while we’re trying to help. We’re trying to help you. So help us help you.”

“This is not a partisan issue,” said Bill Ritchey, committee chairman for Citizens, Firefighters and Deputies for Measure L 2017. “This is not an ideological issue; this is a public safety issue. And it is the most defined, most needed, most respected part of what local government does. Firefighter Martin Lawler put it very succinctly when describing the human-to-human aspect of what rescuers do in their work with the public – willingly, selflessly, without regard or question, if there is a choice between who will be sacrificed – the citizen or themselves – it would always be themselves. That is the face of this argument.”

So Measure L. I am a no tax, limited government, fiscally conservative. That being said, for 12 + years I have showed up to your house while your loved one had no pulse and was not breathing — by myself. I came with no one else while smoke and flames were coming out of your front window. Flood waters pouring through your house. Your elderly wife on the floor needing help up. The field in your back yard on fire, burning toward your house. All while you told me, myself, and I (cause that’s who showed up) “Please Hurry.” I don’t like taxes any more than the next person. But my family doesn’t like me showing up to help you, by myself. I’m voting yes on L.

Martin Lawler, Oakhurst resident, YHS graduate, firefighter

(None of the activities, printed material, signage, etc., by the Citizens, Firefighters and Deputies for Measure L 2017 committee are paid for out of County funds. Volunteers donate their time, and money has been raised through the efforts of the Madera County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Cal Fire Local 2881, Supervisors Tom Wheeler and Brett Frazier, Bill Bunnell, and other concerned citizens. “Their time, their dime.” If you would like someone from the committee to speak to your organization, or just have your own questions answered, email measurelcampaign@gmail.com.)

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