10th Anniversary of County Fire Authority Gets Chilly Julian Reception

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Water-carrying Bambi Buckets hang at the ready near SDCFA press conference. Photo by Ken Stone

By Ken Stone

Julian residents Lori Foss and Patricia Van Natta stood quietly in a heating-up helicopter hangar Thursday, watching their East County supervisor and Cal Fire chief boast of backcountry fire readiness.

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Lori Foss of Julian listens to Supervisor Dianne Jacob. Photo by Ken Stone

It was the 10th anniversary of the San Diego County Fire Authority, and a chance for officials to note the agency’s progress while warning of another dangerous fire season.

But after Supervisor Dianne Jacob, County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham and a volunteer coordinator finished speaking before TV cameras at the Gillespie Helitack Base, Foss got fired up.

“It’s all BS,” she told a reporter.

Foss called Cal Fire’s contentions of response times of just over 10 minutes “garbage” and said 14 Cal Fire vehicles in the unincorporated region of 1.5 million acres equated to one truck with two or three firefighters per 107,000 acres.

The Julian fire station — under the last volunteer fire agency in the area — is dedicated to Julian, she said in the Sheriff’s Department facility in El Cajon, “and we can’t wait 30 minutes for Cal Fire…. Someone’s going to die.”

Info sheet distributed at 10th anniversary of County Fire Authority (PDF)

In late May, Van Natta posted on Facebook: “All citizens that care about our fire department, we need you to help by getting petition signatures to stop the dissolution or at least get it on the ballot. … We are ‘Calling All Angels’ … to help!”

Jacob, wearing her usual bluejeans to a rural function, reminded the public: “It’s not a question of if we’re going to have another firestorm, it’s a question of when.”

But she crowed: “We here in San Diego have more locally based firefighting resources than anywhere in the nation. That’s a big deal.”

In their remarks, Jacob and Mecham made no reference to efforts to dissolve the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District. Neither did Teresa Greenhalgh of Jamul, volunteer program manager for the County Fire Authority.

Instead they referred to the “crazy quilt” (Jacob) and “patchwork quilt” (Mecham) of rural fire districts before 2008 and the launch of the County Fire Authority, which contracts with Cal Fire for wildland fire and emergency response services.

They implored residents to take the wildland fire threat seriously and take four steps: Make sure home addresses are visibly well-posted, have 100 feet of “defensible space,” create a personal escape plan, and register for Alert San Diego.

After the news conference, however, Jacob made it clear that Julian residents would have final say on their fire district’s fate.

“If they want to stand alone, that’s up to them,” she said.

But she stressed that if Julian stays independent, it will still have a relationship with the County Fire Authority — just as the agency has with the other independent fire districts and cities.

“No different,” she said.

The longtime supervisor pushed back against accusations of Cal Fire fudging response-time stats.

“There’s a lot of misinformation going around,” Jacob said, “and I think you’ll see the truth coming out, the facts coming out. There’s a lot of emotion involved.”

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Doors to the Sheriff's Department hanger at Gillespie Field later were closed to shut out noise. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Supervisor Dianne Jacob waits for outside noise to quiet down before starting her remarks. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Water-carrying Bambi Buckets hanged near County Fire Authority press conference. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Maps showed the "crazy quilt" of independent fire districts before 2008 and today. Photo by Ken Stonemore
County staffers record officials on the 10th anniversary of the San Diego County Fire Authority. Photo by Ken Stonemore
County Fire Authority (and San Diego Cal Fire) Chief Tony Mecham chats with TV crew after news conference. more
County Fire Authority (and San Diego Cal Fire) Chief Tony Mecham chats with TV crew after news conference. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Lori Foss of Julian listens to Supervisor Dianne Jacob. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Supervisor Dianne Jacob tells how the county has spent $460 million in firefighting preparation since 2003. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Supervisor Dianne Jacob warns residents that it's not a matter of if, but when the next firestorm strikes the county. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Cal Fire regional Chief Tony Mecham recalls Corey Iverson on the six-month anniversary of his death in Ventura County. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Cal Fire regional Chief Tony Mecham speaks in front of Supervisor Jacob and sheriff's Lt. Emory Wallace. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Cal Fire regional Chief Tony Mecham notes it was 10th day in row for a county fire. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Teresa Greenhalgh of Jamul is volunteer program manager for the County Fire Authority. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Teresa Greenhalgh notes the value of citizens taking CERT training. Photo by Ken Stonemore

She added: “I would hope the people of Julian look for the facts, look for the truth and make an informed decision.”

Mecham, who somberly noted the six-month anniversary of the death of San Diego Cal Fire’s Corey Iverson, later told Times of San Diego that Julian missing from the County Fire Authority wouldn’t hamper the regional fire system.

“No, we’re going to continue to operate our system,” he said. “I certainly hope they join the system. But if not, we’ll look for opportunities to support each other in the future.”

Amid worries that Cal Fire was engaged in a “takeover” of Julian’s volunteer fire department — a video (see below) posted June 4 makes a 4-minute case — Mecham said he’d been in Julian on Tuesday to meet with reserve firefighters.

“At the fire station level — which is what’s important to me — they’re all getting along,” he said of the lower-level trainees and his professional Cal Fire staff.

(He acknowledged that he hasn’t talked to the Julian staff who do the real response work — “about 10 volunteer firefighters left in the program.”)

“As leaders, our responsibility [is] to not let this [dissolution] issue affect the day-to-day service,” Mecham said. “I was really optimistic both for the Cal Fire staff there and for the Julian Reserve firefighters that they see the bigger picture.”

He said a lot is to be gained.

“And even if the district ends up not coming into the county, I’d like to think that in the six months we’re there, we’re going to leave it a better place,” having provided training to career-firefighter hopefuls.

“If it doesn’t work out, we’ll leave whatever we’ve done there,” he said. “[We’re] ultimately there to benefit the community.”

Mecham wouldn’t address a hot-button issue in the apple-country tourist mecca — Julian Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber and Fire Capt. Dave Southcott being put on administrative leave.

“Those are confidential personnel matters that I can’t discuss,” he said.

Meanwhile, Julian residents used social media channels and email chains to promote a spaghetti dinner fund-raiser and auction Saturday in Little Italy.

The event — which will honor Southcott and other volunteers — aims to fatten a war chest to keep the Julian fire department independent.

“Please bring the family and enjoy a fun night of good food, entertainment, and memories to share with your families,” said “JCFPD and Supporters.”

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