Calif. officials consider keeping FDs open after fire season due to long response times
Butte County officials review response times and possible solutions for the residents of three communities for the winter
By Jake Hutchison
OROVILLE, Calif. — After funding for the Amador Program fire stations was put on the chopping block during budget adjustments earlier this year, residents of Berry Creek, Concow and Stirling City were left with uncertainty.
Many have attended Butte County Board of Supervisors meetings in recent months asking for solutions and expressing concerns over the long response times during the winter months when the stations will be closed.
Cal Fire-Butte County Fire Chief Garrett Sjolund, by request of the board, gave a presentation during Tuesday's meeting breaking down how the response times have and will be impacted throughout the winter with the stations closed.
"The intent of the Amador Program is to provide additional fire protection outside of fire season, not to replace the local agencies' day-to-day fire protection responsibilities," Sjolund said.
Financial responsibilities for these stations are split between the state and the county. The state covers the cost of an engine and a captain, while the county takes on operating costs, firefighters and the administrative charge. In total, the annual cost to the county per station comes out to around $197,000.
Butte County has taken part in the Amador Program since 1974.
Sjolund said that from Dec. 13 through April 24, the unfunded station areas had a total of 157 calls, with Stirling City receiving 45, Jarbo Gap receiving 74 and Berry Creek receiving 38. The funded Amador stations, those the board opted to keep, received a total of 290 calls, with 137 from Paradise, 87 from Forrest Ranch and 66 from Robinson Mill.
Broken down further, the unfunded areas received the following types of calls:
* Stirling City: Three fire calls, 24 medical calls and 18 considered to be other.
* Jarbo Gap: Three fire calls, 42 medical calls and 29 others.
* Berry Creek: One fire call, 27 medical calls and 10 others.
Sjolund went on to say that about half of the medical calls from Stirling City were transported to the hospital, with Jarbo Gap at 69% and Berry Creek at about 74%. He added that in some cases, the response came from volunteer companies.
The highest average response time — this being from the call to when the first piece of fire equipment makes it to the scene — was for Berry Creek at 26 minutes, followed by Stirling City at 20 minutes and Jarbo Gap at 17 minutes.
A concern brought forward by Supervisor Bill Connelly was in regard to medical transportation and how people are taken to the hospital. Sjolund said that because firefighters do not transport individuals, dispatchers are called upon to request either ground or air ambulances. Sjolund added that firefighters are typically trained in providing oxygen as well as CPR.
Air ambulances get people to the hospital significantly faster than ground ambulances, Sjolund said, but the caveat is that life-saving measures like CPR cannot be conducted in a helicopter.
"It's dependent on if it's a femur fracture, bleeding or those sort of things that can be contained," Sjolund said of scenarios where an air ambulance would be ideal.
During the item's public comment period, Cal Fire's John Gaddie spoke in favor of opening the stations to mitigate the long response times. Gaddie serves as the battalion chief for the Butte County emergency command center.
"The report by the fire chief is a clear indication of the need for a full-time, staffed fire station with professional firefighters in these communities," Gaddie said. "The response is well below the national average for rural communities. Although we have volunteers that are dedicated community members providing the service, there is that potential of them not having a full-time fire station in that community."
Gaddie went on to share his personal experience when dealing with these long-distance emergencies from the perspective of the dispatch center in Oroville: "I watched my employees be on the phone for 20 minutes with a citizen doing CPR on a loved one, and to me, that's unacceptable."
One of the most common complaints, which Gaddie expressed and others after him echoed, was the looming threat of being dropped by insurance companies without nearby fire stations.
"I've also worked in the Fire Marshal Bureau," Gaddie said. "Here in Butte County with the recent destructive wildfires, the rebuilding effort for those communities involves a myriad of processes. One of these is confirming or providing insurance companies with a letter stating where the closest fire station is that is staffed 24 hours."
Butte County Chief Administrative Officer Andy Pickett said the county's budget for the next year is still being prepared and whether funding will be available for the closed stations remains to be seen.
Aside from the presentation, the board oversaw went over a series of projects requesting money from the American Rescue Plan Act fund and imposed more liens against derelict properties deemed public nuisances.
The Board of Supervisors generally meets at 9 a.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month at its chambers located at 25 County Center Drive, Suite 205 in Oroville. Meetings are free and open to the public. The next meeting is scheduled for June 6, 2023.