By Ruth Musser-Lopez
For five substantially more populous San Bernardino County communities, the experience of Wonder Valley in its dealings with the San Bernardino County Fire Department is a cautionary tale heard too late.
Wonder Valley is a census designated 146.77 square mile area east of Twentynine Palms with a population 615.
Until 2005 the rural community managed on its own, with the augmentation funding due it from the state and county, to fend for itself with regard to the provision of basic fire protection service, utilizing a paid call firefighting staff working out of its traditional Wonder Valley Fire Station.
The firefighters there, in conjunction with community members who possessed the requisite skill, had customized an existing fire truck to meet the special needs of the Wonder Valley environs, welding onto the truck’s body and frame tanks capable of storing and quickly dispensing over 2,000 gallons of water. That tender, while a tad slower than the other 250-gallon capacity brush patrol vehicle which in any event was on station in Wonder Valley previously and was generally the first unit to respond to fire calls, was yet considered the department’s primary capital vehicle. It carried sufficient water to be able, once it arrived on the scene, to douse the type of conflagration that would be likely to threaten homes in the sparsely populated district.
That all began to change sometime after 2005 when the community voted to become a special county fire district tax zone. In 2016 Wonder Valley’s water tender went missing in action and was replaced with one brush patrol unit, which carried paramedic equipment with a small pump and small water tank. Tracey Martinez, the San Bernardino County Fire Division public information officer, this week said “The water tender assigned to the Wonder Valley fire station had a manual transmission, and was an older model. The engine blew up late last year and the decision was made not to invest in the vehicle as not all personnel were able to legally drive the apparatus because of the transmission configuration. However, a newer model water tender is in service from the Twentynine Palms fire station that all personnel can drive.”
On Tuesday, June 13, at the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors budget hearing on the County Fire Protection District’s proposed 2017-2018 budget of $232,880,240, the Sentinel learned that the Wonder Valley fire station was to be closed due to “funding constraints and facility issues.” The county refers to the Wonder Valley Fire Station as “#45.” Officials maintain the $165,569 of special tax revenue collected in Wonder Valley was not enough incentive to keep the Wonder Valley fire station operational, so a $954,579 decrease in cost for staff and $200,000 decrease in operating costs were calculated into the proposed budget and #45 was to be shuttered. This closure was to be put in place despite the county report that last year Wonder Valley responded as far west as Morongo Valley, North to Baker, East to Needles and the Colorado River corridor.
“Future services will be provided by the nearest available fire station” according to the 2017-2018 budget proposal the board of supervisors adopted. Mark A. Hartwig, the county fire chief/fire warden informed the Sentinel, “We proposed elimination of the staffing at the Wonder Valley Station in order to maintain staffing in other high priority stations and programs in the district.” According to Dena M. Smith, the county’s interim chief administrative officer, six employees currently staff the station and would be deployed to three other stations to enhance operations there.
“It was a district decision to reallocate funds to other high priority programs and fire stations. There was no increase in general funds proposed in this year’s budget,” Hartwig said.
The funds to keep Wonder Valley operational at least for 2017-2018 were eventually found before the board took the vote. In presenting this budget to the board, Hartwig fielded questions with regard to the Wonder Valley operation from Supervisor James Ramos whose territory includes Wonder Valley. Ramos indicated that there had been a shift in the operations at Wonder Valley and there was not sufficient time to educate the community with regard to this shift.
The shift Ramos was referring to was the proposed closure of the fire station. The budget report states that closing this station will have a significant impact on response times, as the closest county fire facility is located in Twentynine Palms. Also, responses to future incidents along the Interstate 40 corridor will now be provided from fire stations in either Baker or Needles, with the Marine Core Logistics Base in Barstow as an option if available.
After a brief recess, Smith reported that $1.5 million could be redirected for one year from a newly established “reserve” for California University of Science and Medicine to fund the inmate hand crew, freeing up funds for the Wonder Valley station to continue operating for another year.
The approval of the extra $1.5 million was due in large part because of Ramos’s intercession. His Third Supervisorial District, in addition to the more urbanized areas of east San Bernardino, Highland, Loma Linda, Redlands, and Yucaipa, also features vast portions of rural and desert expanse serviced by the fire district operations. He said that he was looking to extend the Wonder Valley operations “with one-time money for a year, to do the educational process with regard to the fire services district in the community.” Having gotten input from the community, he warned that the closure would impact the I-40 corridor. He wanted to “know what the options truly are and if there is a way to identify funding in your recommendation, one-time, not ongoing, to get out and educate the community.”
There was some discussion between Smith, Ramos and Hartwig with regard to “inmate hand crews” being used in Wonder Valley by the county fire district. Funding inmate hand crews throughout the county fire service areas was another justification for the $1.5 million reserve transfer. Board Chairman Robert Lovingood supported the use of the inmate hand crews and, without mentioning the $1.5 million transfer that would need to be paid back, in a county funded newsletter this week reported the board’s unanimous decision on June 13 to restore funding for inmate fire crews in the coming fiscal year. “In 2016, inmate crews responded to 738 emergency calls, with that number expected to top 1,000 calls this year. Inmate crews also logged 10,560 hours of work in Victorville, Hesperia, San Bernardino, Needles and unincorporated county areas, including chipping operations in Wrightwood and [redressing] illegal dumping operations throughout the High Desert” the online newsletter said. Lovingood was quoted as saying, “Inmate crews logged 84,894 hours last year, saving taxpayers more than $2 million. These crews spent nine days on the Blue Cut Fire and helped collect 578 tons of trash around the High Desert. Clearly, this is an outstanding program that is making a major impact on our communities.” Borrowing $1.5 million to save $2 million makes good sense to Mr. Lovingood.
Following the meeting, Hartwig told the Sentinel that the county is “relying on the Inmate Hand Crews for fire protection services in Wonder Valley, as it is needed and available. They are specially trained county jail inmates that respond to emergency and non-emergency requests throughout the county… Inmate hand crews are limited in the areas they can operate due to their incarceration status. None of the inmates are emergency medical technicians or paramedics… It [the program] was also re-funded this year by the board.”
Hartwig said that these crews are used in ‘all areas of the county including city contracted areas.”
The Sentinel queried Hartwig as to what locations the six Wonder Valley employees would have been deployed to. “If the station were to close they would have been reassigned to other funded but vacant positions in the district. Vacant positions change routinely based on promotions, retirements, and transfers” Hartwig told the Sentinel. With no “shift” or closure, the staffing “remains at two firefighters per day 24/7/365…none will be redeployed because the board voted in favor of maintaining funding for the Wonder Valley Station,” Hartwig said. Currently there are six total staffing the fire station, two per day and at least one is a paramedic. With the additional funding provided to the county fire budget, at the Wonder Valley station there will be no change or shift, Hartwig said.
According to Martinez, Wonder Valley is an area located within the South Desert Service Zone and the property owners voted by ballot and approved a special tax in 2005 to provide for county fire protection services across the Wonder Valley area. The tax is specific to Wonder Valley only. Therefore, only the citizens in the affected area (Wonder Valley) voted on the initial measure. Other special “Fire Protection Service Zones” were also created when voters passed special taxes measures: FP-1 Red Mountain in 1985, FP-2 Windy Acres in 1985, FP-3 El Mirage in 1987, FP-5 Helendale in 2006, FP-6 Havasu Landing in 2009.
The 2017-2018 county budget refers to the Wonder Valley tax zone as Fire Protection Service Zone “FP-4” which is subject to a special tax authorized by the board of supervisors on June 7, 2005.
Over the last two years, the Needles and San Bernardino municipal fire departments have been closed, as was the fire department for Twenythine Palms, which was run under the auspices of the water department. In each of those cases, the area within the city limits of each of those cities was annexed into Helendale’s FP-5 service zone on the basis of those cities’ application with the Local Agency Formation Commission, and a vote of the Local Agency Formation Commission board to grant those annexations and impose on those cities’ landowners an assessment. Currently, an effort launched by the City of Upland to place itself within a county service zone has resulted in LAFCO deeming that Upland should be grouped together with neighboring San Antonio Heights, which up to the present has been provided fire protection by the county’s Central Valley fire zone. Like those in San Bernardino, Needles and Twentynine Palms before them, a significant cross section of residents in Upland and San Antonio are displeased with the action, but were denied by LAFCO the opportunity to vote on the annexation and assessment imposition by the use of a loophole in California law by which public approval of the annexation is obtained through a so-called protest vote. In a protest vote those not submitting protests are deemed to have supported the proposal. Uplanders and San Antonio Heights residents have until July 11 to lodge protests, though there is little prospect the protest movement will garner the 25 percent threshold needed to force an actual ballot referendum on the annexation or the 50.001 percent needed to stop the annexation and $152.68 annual assessment outright.
Property owners being taxed in a special service zone of the San Bernardino County Fire District are not guaranteed that their community fire stations won’t be shuttered, despite the fact that the county sets aside and reserves property tax dollars collected from a service zone for exclusive use in that service zone.
John Goss, a San Antonio Heights resident opposed to the annexation of Upland and San Antonio Heights into county Fire Service Zone 5 on the basis of the assessment it entails and the consideration that residents are not being given an opportunity to vote on the issue, rented the Upland Women’s Club Building to hold meetings this week on Tuesday and Thursday evening in an effort to interest property owners in assisting him to collect protest signatures against the annexation. At the Tuesday night meeting with about 20 residents he spoke to the issue of the county fire division’s intent to close Upland’s Station #162, located at 2046 N. San Antonio Avenue. Goss said the county will move the center of operations for the fire protection coverage for the northwest quadrant of Upland from Station #162 to County Fire Station #12 at Euclid and 24th Street. “They will add three to the crew at #12 and take six away from #162 and place them elsewhere. They say there will be no difference in service if #162 is shut down, but it will leave a whole area in northwest Upland without a fire station. What this annexation does is force Upland’s residents to pay more for what is essentially less service.”
By Ruth Musser-Lopez