Community blames unstaffed fire station for injury, loss

By J. Harry Jones
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SHELTER VALLEY, Calif. — A woman was seriously burned and a home was destroyed in the small desert community of Shelter Valley on Tuesday after it took firefighters roughly 30 minutes to respond because the local Cal Fire station was virtually unmanned.

Residents say the Shelter Valley station has been mostly empty the past few weeks and they've been told the situation won't change for a while because of staffing shortages.

The fire was reported at 8:33 a.m. Tuesday at a trailer in the town of roughly 150 people, about 10 miles southwest of Borrego Springs off County Highway S2.

Edward Genest, president of the Shelter Valley Citizens Corporation, said only one firefighter was in the station at the time and he wasn't certified to drive a firetruck. An ambulance and firetruck from Julian responded, arriving shortly after 9 a.m., he said, but by then the trailer was a complete loss.

The woman living there, who Genest identified as Debbie Ramey, was taken by helicopter to a San Diego burn center with burns to her lungs and face. She had gone back into the burning trailer to try and rescue her dogs when she was injured, Genest and Cal Fire Unit Chief Tony Mecham said.

Genest said things might have been different if the Shelter Valley station was better staffed.

"We've got a beautiful fire department, it just happens to be vacant most of the time," he said.

Mecham, who heads the county's fire department as well as Cal Fire in San Diego, said the station has been manned 93 percent of the time in the past year, but was unoccupied from June 29 to July 9. It was scheduled to be fully staffed last weekend through Tuesday, but that crew was diverted to the Feather Fire in Ramona, which broke out Friday.

A replacement crew didn't get to Shelter Valley until Tuesday afternoon.

Staffing is a challenge because volunteer cadets assigned to various rural stations keep getting hired away, and there is a shortage of firefighters certified to drive fire trucks, Mecham said.

"You don't get the same level of service in an isolated rural community as you get in downtown San Diego," Mecham said. "There is not the tax base out there to support it."

Still, "compared to rural coverage across the state, I think people in San Diego County get great coverage," he said. Last year, the average response time in Shelter Valley was less than 8 minutes — far better than the department's goal of 22 minutes for such remote locations, he added.

Shelter Valley used to have a robust volunteer fire department, but most of its members left after San Diego County Fire Authority took control several years ago and enacted strict physical and training requirements.

The authority contracts with Cal Fire to staff rural stations.

The county renovated the fire station and equipped it well, but Genest said that does no good if crews aren't there to protect the community.

Dianne Jacob — who represents East County on the Board of Supervisors and who has been one of the champions of the fire authority — issued a statement Wednesday saying the county has made huge strides in fire protection since the 2003 Cedar Fire, but that "maintaining adequate staffing 365 days a year at some of our more isolated stations remains a challenge…"

She said she plans to meet with residents Aug. 5 to talk about their concerns and will continue to work with fire authorities to "address this critical issue."

The Shelter Valley station covers a large area of the desert, not just Shelter Valley. Most of their calls are for medical service and traffic accidents.

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(c)2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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