The Strawberry Fire Protection District will re-open for service this month, nearly two years since its board of directors voted to suspend all firefighting activities.
Issues with the district came into focus after a January 2010 incident where the department failed to respond to a fire at the Strawberry Store, leaving Pinecrest Volunteer Fire Department and other county fire units to battle the blaze.
The fire protection district at the time operated with about 12 volunteers and two fire engines. But few of those volunteers had valid state certification, one of the engines wasn’t qualified for service and most of the equipment was out-of-date.
Two board members didn’t seek re-election and one was unseated in the November 2010 election.
A letter was sent to Strawberry homeowners earlier this year explaining the steps the new board of directors have taken to get the district back up and running.
Some of the improvements have included purchasing all new equipment, repairing the district’s service engine and getting two volunteers certified.
Two volunteer firefighters from Pinecrest were also brought in to help see the fire station through the rebuilding process.
Pinecrest Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Chris Bandley replaced former Strawberry fire chief Tom Brick, who was fired by the district’s board in December 2010.
Brian Bosque, also a lieutenant at Pinecrest Fire, is co-managing the Strawberry firehouse with Bandley.
Nicole and Calin Smith, who first volunteered with the district in May 2010, have each been sent to complete training at the Tuolumne County Joint Basic Fire Academy.
Nicole Smith graduated top of her class in 2011 and her husband, Calin, is due to graduate this June.
So far this year, Nicole Smith has responded to three service calls for two medical aids and one fire in the Strawberry area. She also responded to four calls in Pinecrest.
“We basically had to rebuild the station from the ground up,” said Buffy Bandley, who manages the district’s finances and serves on its board of directors.
Bandley said $18,000 was spent for bumper-to-bumper repairs on its ailing service engine, all new self-contained breathing apparatuses were purchased and running water was installed at the district firehouse for the first time since it was built in 1957.
There are multiple benefits for the community that come from having an operational fire department in the area, including enhanced safety and reduced homeowners’ insurance costs, Bandley said.
She said liability was also a major concern when many of the district’s volunteers weren’t certified and their gear was out-of-date.
“If they showed up at my house I would have refused them,” Bandley said. “I wouldn’t want anyone who didn’t know what they were doing getting killed while fighting a fire at my house.”
The goal of the district is to eventually gain status as a standalone fire department. In order to do that, it would need eight to 10 more fully-certified volunteers, according to Bandley.
While the station was closed, the district inked a contract with the county to cover the area through the rebuilding process.
County Administrator Craig Pedro said the county was there to support the district in its efforts by helping with interim management and advice, but ultimately he gives the credit to the new board of directors.
“The new board has been acting quickly, decisively and effectively,” he said.
Though significant progress has been made, Pedro said the county will continue to assist with fire protection in the area until more trained and certified volunteers are acquired.
“I think they would be the first to tell you they’re still a ways from being able to stand on their own again,” he said. “But this is a big, positive change from where they were a year ago.”
Pedro said the Tuolumne County Fire and First Responder Study, which was initiated in 2010 to identify ways to strengthen the county’s fire and first responder system, also helped Strawberry and other volunteer fire protection districts by facilitating communication between them and the county.
Pedro will attend the grand re-opening of the firehouse, which is scheduled for Sunday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. A ribbon cutting ceremony will be between 11 and 11:30 a.m.