Union Democrat staff

The first question arose in the wake of a Jan. 23 fire at the Strawberry Store: Why didn't the hometown Strawberry Fire District respond?

After all, the district's Old Strawberry Road fire station is far closer to the store than the Pinecrest or Twain Harte departments - which did send engines. And, in fact, those visiting crews halted the flames before they spread from an upstairs apartment to the store itself.

Union Democrat reporter Ashley Archibald's Jan. 29 story, which aimed to answer that question, gave rise to several more concerns - including whether the Strawberry District's taxpayers are getting their money's worth and how small departments like it fit into Tuolumne County's overall firefighting strategy.

Bottom line: Nobody was at the Strawberry station when the Saturday store fire broke out and nobody with the district apologized.

"We don't expect to be the first responder," said Fire Board President Robert Rutherford, adding that his volunteers often show up in their own cars "as backups" and provide information about the community's apparently complicated water system to on-scene firefighters.

For this somewhat unusual service, district property owners collectively pony up about $55,000 annually. And, as the district does not respond to wildfires, this assessment covers only a handful of structure fires each year.

Of course, the 12-volunteer district doesn't spend that kind of money fighting fires, which may be why the directors have stockpiled some $200,000. The size of this reserve - nearly four times the agency's annual income - would make other fire departments green with envy in this era of limits.

But it also must make Strawberry voters and taxpayers wonder if they'd rather have the cash working for better fire protection than sitting in a bank.

The story gave rise to other key questions:

• Are Strawberry's volunteers trained to state standards? And if so, how many are certified?

• Does the district have mutual aid agreements with other districts? And if so, how often do Strawberry firefighters go beyond the district's boundaries?

• Who answers medical aid calls in the district? And who pays for that?

• Are the district's 60 voters and the owners of the 382 lots within it aware of these issues and concerns?

The answer to that last question is not necessarily yes.

For a public agency, the Strawberry Fire District seems less than transparent:

• A new director reported she has asked several times for the district's bylaws without success.

• Although the five-member board is theoretically chosen by voters, county elections officials cannot remember a single contested election over several decades. And, in 2007, only one candidate filed for four available board seats - an unmistakable indicator of apathy and disinterest. Seats have instead filled by appointment and volunteers.

• Although district staff members insist there is a mutual aid agreement with other county departments, no one thus far has produced it.

When Strawberry residents in July of 1957 voted overwhelmingly to form the fire district, one must assume they did so to fill a pressing need.

In 1988, voters rejected a proposed four-year tax hike to help the then-financially strapped district. But at the same time they rejected an advisory measure calling for dissolution of the department, which would mean local calls would be turned over to the Pinecrest station.

Yet, as it did last month, Pinecrest is answering calls anyway - and is getting paid nothing for it. Meanwhile, Strawberry property owners continue to pay an average of more than $142 per lot each year for, well, not much.

Some may shrug, figuring that the tiny district is free to set its own course, no matter how hazardous or unproductive it may seem.

But at the same time, Strawberry is part of countywide firefighting strategy involving Cal Fire, the Tuolumne County Department and other districts. These parts should work efficiently and economically both for the good of individual communities and the county as a whole.

With this in mind, it is time for Strawberry's residents to answer questions that have arisen in the wake of the Jan. 23 fire, and perhaps address a larger issue:

Can the district justify its continued existence?