Union Democrat staff

Pleading poverty, the Tuolumne Fire District is looking to annex - and tax - about 68,000 acres, including Ponderosa Hills and other neighborhoods.

Up in Strawberry, constituents of the community's tiny fire district wonder why its volunteers failed to respond to a January blaze at the Strawberry Store - and whether they are getting their money's worth.

Jamestown's fire district has all but shut down, and its tax revenues now pay for a county engine and firefighter.

The Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine District is gearing up for its third attempt at a higher tax levy to support 24/7 service. The Columbia District is a also proposing a new tax.

Revenues throughout the fire-protection system are declining or stagnant.

And the ranks of volunteer firefighters continue to thin. Due to increased training demands and required qualifications, the county has just 70 certified volunteers - about a quarter of the total in the 1980s.

These dire circumstances are the backdrop for a comprehensive study of Tuolumne County fire protection which began last October.

"Everything's on the table and there are no sacred cows," said County Administrator Craig Pedro, who is heading up the effort.

A meeting involving the county's fire chiefs, fire district directors and fire department administrators kicked off the campaign in October.

The goal is simple, said Pedro: An economical, efficient countywide firefighting network that can bring speedy response to both fire and emergency medical calls and better fire insurance ratings to Tuolumne County communities.

He added that the effort began on the right foot. "If we had hired an outside consultant to do this, it would have cost us at least $100,000," Pedro said. "As it is, we're doing it in house and saving the money."

The project began, he said, "by defining the system as it is today." That includes independent community services district, the Sonora City Fire Department, the Columbia College Fire Department, the Mono Village-headquartered county fire department and its satellite stations and, during fire season, Cal Fire stations.

Is there overlap, redundancy, cost duplication, opportunities for savings or revenue?

These are questions which will likely be answered before the effort concludes with a report and recommendations this summer. Those recommendations could conceivably result in some districts expanding, others shrinking and still others being eliminated altogther.

But, said Pedro, there is also a realization among those involved that a key ingredient of the present system is mutual aid agreements that tie departments, districts and stations together and ensure quick and adequate response to larger fires or emergencies.

Medical emergencies, now about 80 percent of 911 calls fire stations field, may also be an issue. Some have questioned having both fire and ambulance crews responding to the same call, perhaps just minutes apart.

But in a graying county whose older residents more likely to fall prey to such emergencies, there will likely be little sentiment for cutting corners. "Keep the engines rolling," urged one senior at a recent meeting. "The EMTs saved my wife's life."

Funding, of course, may be a key to effective local and countywide programs. Whether voters are willing to make further commitments may be evident after the upcoming Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine and Columbia elections.

A clearer consensus may greet efforts to make our neighborhoods safer from fire and to bring their residents more affordable insurance.

In any case, a look at the countywide fire-protection picture is long overdue. With cooperation and open minds from the players involved and with plenty of opportunity for public comment as the plan takes shape, there is cause for optimism.