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Tiny Julian sticks by its volunteer fire department

The San Diego County town has a proud tradition of nonprofessional but dedicated firefighters. So the debate over a recent tempting offer was surprisingly heated.

May 05, 2013|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Engineer Brian Crouch checks a lightbulb at the Julian Volunteer Fire Company in the northern San Diego County mountain town. The town recently declined an offer for protection from the county Fire Authority.
Engineer Brian Crouch checks a lightbulb at the Julian Volunteer Fire Company… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

JULIAN, Calif. — To the outside world, this mountain hamlet in northeast San Diego County is best known for apple pie, snow during the holiday season and bed-and-breakfasts that cater to romantic flatlanders.

For many of its 1,500 residents, however, the essence of their community is represented not by the delights that await tourists but by the dedication and heroism of the volunteer fire department that has guarded their homes and businesses for four decades.

In Southern California's never-ending fight against backcountry, wind-driven brush fires, Julian is on the front lines.

So when officials from the San Diego County Fire Authority came to Julian with an offer — more money for station operations and vehicle maintenance, two full-time, professional firefighters, better training for volunteers and better coordination with surrounding fire agencies — the terms were enticing. Volunteers could remain if they could pass new physical fitness standards.

But in exchange for additional county support, the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, like the other small fire departments, would be required to dissolve as a stand-alone agency with its own locally elected board and cede control to the county Board of Supervisors, 70 miles away.

"If you want the money, you've got to be part of the team," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

The Fire Authority approach to regional consolidation was adopted in 2008 after a series of fires destroyed thousands of homes in the eastern and northern stretches of the county, as well as inside the San Diego city limits. The fires highlighted the problems of fire protection provided by a patchwork of independent agencies.

Although she understands the pull of local control, Jacob thinks the Fire Authority offer provides better fire protection, quicker response to medical emergencies and lower fire-insurance premiums for property owners.

There have been misgivings in other areas about their volunteer departments coming under the Fire Authority. But nowhere has the opposition been stronger than in Julian.

Meetings of the Julian board were heated as the community debated the offer. Friendships were broken. Disagreements could frequently be heard in the post office parking lot.

Finally, last month, the governing board deadlocked 2 to 2 — a rejection of county control. A fifth spot on the board, a potential tiebreaker, is vacant. But even when the vacancy is filled this summer, neither side is interested in revisiting the issue.

"As contentious as the issue was, I don't think any of us want to go through it again," said board President Jack Shelver, who supported accepting the Fire Authority offer even though, as a retired city manager from Lemon Grove, he describes himself as "a local-control kind of guy."

Volunteer fire departments are a defining feature not just of Julian but of much of San Diego County.

About 400 volunteer firefighters, spread among 30 stations and 10 departments, protect 60% of the sprawling county, according to the nonprofit San Diego County Regional Fire Foundation.

The volunteers answer 6,000 medical and fire emergencies a year, said Frank Ault, the foundation's board chairman and also chairman of the Mt. Laguna Volunteer Fire Department. The foundation has provided more than $4 million to the volunteer departments for radios, thermal-imaging cameras, emergency lighting, saws, water rescue gear, protective clothing and other equipment.

Volunteer firefighters "extinguish hundreds of brush fires annually, so they do not become the firestorms of 2003 and 2007," Ault said.

Civic memories are long in Julian, and the debate frequently referenced the early 1970s, when the county dropped its contract with the state for fire protection in the backcountry areas.

Alone among major California counties, San Diego County does not have its own fire department. The Fire Authority is a loose confederation whose chief works for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state fire protection agency.

"We started the Julian department with a lot of used equipment and dedicated people when the county government turned its back on us," said Marie Hutchinson, 70, who was a volunteer firefighter in Julian for 27 years and whose late husband was chief. "It's an integral part of the community, not just a few people."

Funds were raised through bake sales, pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners. Volunteers built the fire station. The department's No. 1 engine had been donated by a big-city department that considered it unusable.

The department has a small tax base and, even without joining the Fire Authority, gets a measure of financial support from the county government.

In 2003, when the Cedar fire came roaring from the Cleveland National Forest, Julian volunteers worked beside hundreds of firefighters from agencies throughout the state. Some 1,500 firefighters encircled the town.

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