Other Voices: Los Altos Hills County Fire District – the case against consolidation

During a firestorm, it is unpleasant to disagree with one’s firefighters, but Adam Cosner’s and Brent White’s assertions in their recent news release about the Los Altos Hills County Fire District are too false and misleading to let stand unanswered.

As indicated by the recent CZU Lightning Fire, the greatest risk of wildfire to Los Altos Hills comes from the open-space areas west and north of town.  These areas are not in the Los Altos Hills County Fire District. They are: Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, Los Trancos Open Space Preserve and Foothills Park. Fire Station 8, in Foothills Park, is owned by Palo Alto and was closed three years ago for cost-reduction reasons. It is far more likely that Los Altos Hills will be adversely impacted by its neighbors than the other way around.

The apparent motivation for this press release is contained in the statement, “to better allocate resources across Santa Clara County.” The fire district’s resources, staff, apparatus, equipment and expertise are already shared. If one is genuinely concerned that the fire district would be the cause of the fire risk, it would not make sense to take resources away from Los Altos Hills.

One part of the recent Management Audit suggests tree removal funds could have been used more effectively, within higher fire risk areas.  However, this is simply an assertion without any assessment of actual risk or needed mitigation. At the same time, the audit shows the fire district spends many times more on tree removal, brush chipping and brush removal programs than any other district, and the Los Altos Hills County Fire District is the smallest district. Dead trees are fuel wherever they reside.

It is true that in the past the fire district could have done a better job in managing procurement, but there is no evidence that this shortcoming has increased fire risk. There have been no large fires in the Los Altos Hills County Fire District in 45 years, and a smaller one one was caused by arson. Over the last dozen years, the fire district has removed thousands of dead, dying and dangerous trees, provided the most extensive brush chipping and brush removal program in the county and spent millions of dollars in conjunction with the water districts to modernize and upgrade hydrants, pipes, tanks and backup generators to assure adequate water flow and resiliency. More recently an Integrated Hazardous Fuel Reduction Program has been implemented that merges all fire fuel reduction programs into an integrated structure guided by the fire district’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The district also has one of the most active Community Emergency Response Team programs and utilizes the Fire Safe Council to assist in creating shaded fuel breaks.

As for consolidation with the Santa Clara County Fire Department, the Los Altos Hills County Fire District already contracts with Santa Clara County Fire for fire protection services.  Santa Clara County firefighters are Los Altos Hills County Fire District firefighters. The Santa Clara County fire chief is the Los Altos Hills County Fire District fire chief. From a fire protection services standpoint, the district is already “consolidated” with the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

The second largest fire in state history is burning in Santa Clara County. The area where it is burning is also subject of the Management Audit, which states, “approximately 543 square miles and 33,000 residents in Santa Clara County reside within neither a city nor a fire district, and therefore are not covered by any local government fire protection organization. As a result, these areas, which have fire risks ranging from low to extreme fire risk and hazard, do not have year-round fire protection coverage.” Santa Clara County’s preparedness for managing wildfire risk is in question.

In November 1993, during another period of major fires in California, citizens passed Proposition 172, which created a one-half percent state sales tax that can be used only for local public safety activities, including fire protection. Santa Clara County collected $220 million last year in Public Safety Sales Tax revenue and many billions of dollars over the past 27 years. Little or no funds have been spent on fire protection, and none is shared with the fire districts. Why?

The unfavorable audit comments about the fire district relate primarily to procedures discontinued years ago. The district’s current staffing and operating methods are consistent with good practice and can further improve with county cooperation. The seven Los Altos Hills County Fire District Commission members are our neighbors, focused on one subject: fire protection services. The alternative is five busy county supervisors. The odds of local attention and protection appear much better with the Los Altos Hills County Fire District. I am not in favor of consolidation.

Allan Epstein is a Los Altos Hills resident.

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