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Pay Now Or Pay Later – Fire Department In Crisis

To The Editor:

On June 9, 2014, the reality of near non-existent fire protection in Madera County was on full display in Bonadelle Ranchos. The unimaginable happened… a family’s home burned just six lots away from County Fire Station 19.

A single career firefighter, aided by two “paid call” firefighters, quickly responded. An aggressive attack on the fire was initiated; but within minutes, came to an abrupt halt. The 500 gallon water tank carried on the fire engine was empty. A few hundred feet away a water tender with 4,000 gallons of water remained parked.

There was no “qualified” driver-operator available to bring the large truck to the fire. Eventually, additional trucks and personnel arrived. By that time, the home was a near total loss.

This incident received attention in the local press. The shortcomings in the fire department are very apparent. The Board of Supervisors quickly responded—with nothing but talk. Fifteen months later, the “status quo” remains. Five of six county fire stations are staffed with only one career firefighter, and two of ten of volunteer stations (Dairyland and Bass Lake) are either closed or considered unstaffed. Water tender response remains unreliable. 67% of county fire engines are at least 15 years old. Often, it takes only one working fire to deplete nearly all resources on the valley floor or mountain area.

Homeowners in Madera County, particularly the mountain area, are being punished with fire insurance premiums that can cost thousands of dollars per year. Property values and commercial development may decline if fire protection is not improved.

While the county’s population has surged, the county budget funds fire protection at the same level as 40 years ago. Take a moment and imagine calling for help… your house fire… cardiac arrest… car wreck with pin-in, and no immediate help was available to respond.

The cities of Madera and Chowchilla fare no better. Both cities have annexed considerable land. Madera city’s fire coverage remains frozen at two stations, while Chowchilla depends entirely on volunteers (except for a paid fire chief) just as they did in the 1970s.

On April 28th, 2015, the Board of Supervisors took a bit of action. A report by CALFIRE (Madera County’s contracted fire department) pointed out numerous deficiencies in fire department staffing, equipment, infrastructure, and response times. Several corrective proposals were offered, all at the cost of millions of dollars. The Board decided to consider additional funding measures, most likely a ½ cent dedicated public safety sales tax. Skepticism was voiced by one board member: We are “Taxed Enough Already”…and you would be “better off” with an insurance claim if your house fire resulted in a total loss!

In August, Madera City Council said they would engage in talks with the county to consider taking a tax measure before the voters.

The sad reality is years of neglect have led to a quiet, simmering crisis. Government budgets, which rely on local revenue for public safety, have no room left to right this wrong.

Our elected officials’ effectiveness will be put to test. Then it will be up to voters to determine — pay now or pay later. How much, and at what cost are we prepared to lose?

Meanwhile, as the fires roar on, we wait…

Bill Ritchey
P. O. Box 46
Raymond, CA 93653

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