County Confirms Permanent Closure Of Fire Station 45 In Wonder Valley

San Bernardino County Fire officials have made a decision to permanently shutter the Wonder Valley Fire Station, foreclosing whatever faint glimmer of hope the residents of this remote area had that the facility would be reopened.
In September 2017 county fire department administrators moved precipitously to shift operations and personnel, which then included Battalion Chief Mike Snow, from Fire Station 45 on Amboy Road next to the community center in Wonder Valley to the Twentynine Palms station on Adobe Road south of Twentynine Palms Highway, which is approximately 11 miles away.
Officials said the move was prompted by the results of an analysis done earlier that month on water drawn from the well Fire Station 45 uses. Lab tests showed, the department said, that the water was contaminated with arsenic, hexavalent chromium and fluoride at levels approaching or exceeding 1,000 times the threshold deemed safe for human use and consumption. The department said it could not countenance subjecting its firefighting personnel to the health threat that contamination posed.
There were conflicting reports as to whether or not testing done on other wells in Wonder Valley showed contamination levels consistent with that in the well used by the fire station for its water supply. The closing of Fire Station 45 brought immediate protests from some Wonder Valley residents. The department, which examined options that included putting a water filtering system into place to determining if it would reduce the contaminant level sufficiently to render the water safe, offered a vague statement to the effect that if and when the water concern was mitigated, the county fire protection division would re-evaluate the use of Fire Station 45. For the last 23 months, the fire department has continued to service the Wonder Valley community from Twentynine Palms.
The recent announcement that the county fire department would not reopen Fire Station 45, after an extended interim wherein the eventual reopening was suggested as possible by several circumstances, was particularly disappointing to the Wonder Valley populace, which has historically been treated by the county like a sometimes-ignored and sometimes-abused stepchild.
Wonder Valley is an unincorporated community roughly 10 miles east of the City of Twentynine Palms and approximately 15 miles northeast of the east entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. The town lies south of the Sheep Hole Mountains and Bullion Mountains and north of the Pinto Mountains at an elevation range of 1,200 feet to 1,800 feet near the confluence of the higher-elevation Mojave Desert and the lower-elevation Colorado Desert. Both Amboy Road and State Route 62 run through Wonder Valley and exist as the community’s primary paved roads, with the vast majority of the community’s streets existing as dirt roads or ones that have been oiled and impacted. Highway 62 extends some 100 miles east, all the way to the Arizona border at Parker, Arizona. Traveling west on Highway 62 from Wonder Valley will take the traveler to Yucca Valley where it then bends south and extends to Palm Springs, some 75 miles distant. Traveling Amboy Road in an easterly direction from Wonder Valley leads toward Laughlin and Las Vegas in Nevada, roughly 125 miles and 150 miles distant, respectively. Following it in the other direction will take the traveler toward Death Valley.
The core of Wonder Valley, i.e., the town, boasts a population of some 650. The rest of Wonder Valley and its outlying environs is sparsely populated, boasting  an estimated population of 1,100 throughout its roughly 175-square mile expanse. Some 3,000 recreational cabins and more permanent living structures built by homesteaders between 1938 and the mid-1960s under the Small Tract Act, also known as the “Baby Homestead Act,” once dotted the landscape, though hundreds were demolished and removed as part of a clean-up effort over the last two decades. Most of these remaining structures, sometimes called “jackrabbit homesteads,” are vacant or abandoned. Wonder Valley lies within the county’s Third Supervisorial District, currently overseen by Supervisor Dawn Rowe.
Until 2005 the rural community managed on its own, with the augmentation funding due it from the state and county. For more than half of a century it fended 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.
For the better part of those fifty years, the volunteer fire department’s primary capital vehicle was its water tender, which holds thousands of gallons of water. The water tender had been custom built by the volunteer firefighters and other locals, a unique adaptation of an existing firetruck that had welded onto its body and frame water tanks capable of storing over 2,000 gallons of water.
After the community voted to become a special county fire district tax zone, the volunteer fire department was subsumed by the county fire department 13 years ago. The San Bernardino County Fire Department operated Fire Station 45, located at 80526 Amboy Road, manned with both on-call firefighters and volunteers along with two professional, full-time firefighters, serving under the command of a county fire division commander.
In 2016, a year before the county fire department’s abandonment of Fire Station 45, the county fire department removed the 2,000-gallon water tender from Wonder Valley. In its stead, the county substituted a modern brush patrol engine, which carries 250 gallons. County officials contend that the brush patrol engine provides adequate means for a first response and carries enough water to initiate a fight against a fire, while more water and fire suppression capability will be in transit from Twentynine Palms and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s fire department. Firefighters from the Marine base, with their more extensive firefighting apparatus, can reach Wonder Valley within ten to fifteen minutes, county officials maintain. Mutual aid, meaning an agreement by which fire agencies have committed to assist one another, provides Wonder Valley with an assurance that the community will not be neglected or overlooked in a dire, or even less than dire, emergency, according to county officials.
The custom-built Wonder Valley tender was slower than the brush patrol vehicles, which in any event were in most cases on station in Wonder Valley previously and were generally the first vehicles to respond to fire calls.
Still the same, many Wonder Valley residents believe the county slighted them and engaged in a serious oversight by removing the tender, which provided a depth of immediate protection in the event of a conflagration. It has been pointed out that the 250 gallons of water in a brush patrol truck can be exhausted in less than three minutes and that knocking down a structure fire, such as one at a residence, will most certainly require more than 250 gallons of water.
Between 2006 and 2018, Wonder Valley property owners paid a fire service assessment of roughly $37 annually. In 2016, the San Bernardino County Fire Department proposed an increase of that assessment to $321 to supply the community with an additional two-man crew or $489 for a 3-man crew. Wonder Valley residents considered assessments of that magnitude pretty much out of their affordability range. The matter became moot with the 2017 closure of Fire Station 45.
Last October, the county put the entirety of unincorporated San Bernardino County in Fire Service Zone 5, imposing on all property owners whose land lies outside of 20 of the county’s 24 cities, as well as the property owners in Upland, San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms and Needles, an annual per parcel assessment of $157. In this way, the residents of Wonder Valley have seen the fire service assessment they agreed to pay to the county for fire protection in 2005 zoom from $37 per year to $157 annually, while the county has just permanently closed out the town’s fire station.
The best available data shows that since the closure of Fire Station 45, the average response time to a call for emergency service in Wonder Valley has increased by more than four minutes.
In the announcement that Fire Station 45 is to remain permanently closed as a county fire department facility, local residents detected evidence that the September 2017 report of the contamination in the well serving the fire station was a ruse to justify the closure. They noted that in the spring of 2017, the county gave indication, as part of its budget for 2017-18, that it was going to close out the Wonder Valley Fire Station. That was well ahead of the September 2017 “discovery” of the contamination at the fire station’s well, they noted. When the first version of the county budget was released in May 2017, it did not include funding for the Wonder Valley fire station. But in finalizing the budget, county supervisors elected to maintain budgeting for the station after it was demonstrated that the call volume there justified its continuing operation.
This week, the county fire department, in making the announcement of the fire station’s permanent closure, indicated that the station will in short order have another occupant, a non-profit service provider that was not further specified. That a county agency is making the structure available for use or habitation by another entity reveals that the claimed contamination issue there is either nonexistent or not as serious as was claimed, residents pointed out, since the county would bear liability if any harm were to come to those using the facility based upon the county having cleared it for use.
-Mark Gutglueck

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