JULIAN, Calif. (KGTV) - The fire district in San Diego's sweetest tourist destination is rejecting a request to join the County Fire Authority, which some say is a potentially life-threatening decision.
Despite repeated recommendations from high-ranking county officials, the tiny apple pie-loving community of Julian has decided to rely on its all-volunteer firefighting crew to respond to any and all emergency medical calls and structure fires within the town.
As Northern California battles its deadliest wildfire season yet, there's been close examination of San Diego County's overall fire and emergency preparedness. Combined, the Cedar Fire of 2003 and Witch Fire of 2007 claimed 17 lives and burned more than 3,000 homes. In 2008, a San Diego County Grand Jury released a report citing major gaps in the county’s preparedness. Organized firefighting in unincorporated parts of the county was described as "fractured". Following release of the report, the San Diego County Fire Authority was created to unify fire operations throughout fire districts around the county.
After the Cocos Fire ripped through Escondido and San Marcos in 2014, another San Diego County Grand Jury report was released. It cited that major strides had been made in recent fire operations, but there was still more work to be done. The grand jury recommended that 13 independent backcountry fire districts be consolidated into the San Diego County Fire Authority. The Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District is one of those districts.
To this day, those 13 districts have not consolidated with San Diego County Fire Authority, but many have agreements for mutual aid. The Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District is different from the others. It's the only all-volunteer backcountry department that's rejecting the county’s offer and choosing to continue acting independently. Per Jack Shelver with the Julian Fire Board, there are only 12 volunteer firefighters who are actively working full-time. In a community that's ripe with apples and tourists, that's worrisome to certain individuals.
"It could mean the difference between life and death," says San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. Jacob has fought for the consolidation of rural fire departments, like Julian's. "I'm very worried about the people in Julian and also those who owns property. [I'm worried] that they may be taking a step backward," she tells us.
The Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District has been testing a temporary contract with the county, where it receives $60,000 a year in funding and a fire engine with advanced life-support capabilities. The fire board recently voted to discontinue that and remain entirely independent from the county, meaning it'll lose all that funding and additional resources. Shelver was the only board member who voted against maintaining independence. "I felt the county could offer a better level of protection to the community," he tells us.
"We will get by just fine without the San Diego County Fire Authority," says Julian resident and retired firefighter Bill Everett. He's one of the members of a prominent and vocal group of Julian residents who've been fighting for the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District to maintain local control and independence. He and several others are skeptical as to whether the county would provide appropriate aid in situations that are dire to the community. Community member Pat Landis adds, "We don't want to lose our fire district to people coming in from the outside that don't know the geography and don't know the people." Everett also says it's often forgotten that the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District is only responsible for calls within the town. Cal-Fire has jurisdiction over fighting wildfires on the land surrounding the Julian. Landis and Everett say the people of Julian will be able to raise the funding to support its fire district's independence.
Supervisor Jacob and San Diego County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham tell us that they respect Julian's decision, but don't agree with it.
Julian loses the additional funding and resources on January 1st. Supervisor Jacob says Julian still has time to reconsider the offer to join the county.
Landis says the Julian community is working on a summer ballot measure to raise its annual fire tax from $50 a year to $200 a year. Chief Mecham says that still won't be enough money to compensate for the loss of the county's assistance.