Letting the land burn
by Glenn Moore
Oct 11, 2013 | 2796 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Fire fighters carry a hose as they head toward a grass fire burning near power lines on Tracy Boulevard north of Howard Road on Sept. 26.  Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
Fire fighters carry a hose as they head toward a grass fire burning near power lines on Tracy Boulevard north of Howard Road on Sept. 26. Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
A fire fanned by high winds swept through thick brush and trees along an irrigation ditch, sending plumes of smoke high above Tracy Boulevard on Sept. 26.

The burning area — about seven miles north of Tracy — is in a region considered unprotected by fire services that spans land north of the Grant Line Canal to Highway 4, east to the Contra Costa County line and west to the San Joaquin River.

Flames burned in the unprotected area until the fire threatened nearby power lines — prompting agencies from Tracy, French Camp, Ripon, Farmington and Waterloo Morada to arrive and battle the blaze for more than five hours.

According to Chief Alford Nero of the Tracy Fire Department, resources aren’t dispatched to unprotected areas until a certain level of danger is reached.

No-man’s land

The vast majority of residents in this section of the Delta do not pay taxes to a fire protection district, and responses by neighboring fire departments are limited, a situation that has gone on for decades.

Nero said Tracy Fire Department’s response to the unprotected area accounted for eight of the department’s 5,989 calls during the 2012-13 fiscal year. The fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

“We do not routinely respond to the unprotected area — for instance, if there was a structure fire in the unprotected area and there was no one trapped in the building, we won’t respond to that,” Nero said. “Our taxpayers should not be subsidizing fire protection to residents who do not want to pay for the service.”

If there was a call for a structure fire and someone might be in the house, Tracy Fire Department would respond, he said. But if firefighters determined that there was no one inside, they would leave — even if the house was still on fire.

“The policy in our fire agency is that we will only respond to calls for service in the unprotected area if there is an immediate life hazard and will provide services only to address the immediate life hazard,” Nero said.

The San Joaquin Local Agency Formation Commission said in a 2011 Municipal Service Review of Rural Fire Protection Districts in San Joaquin County that there were 540 homes with a population of 2,400 people without fire protection in the unprotected area. It’s the latest published report about area fire districts.

The LAFCo report suggests the long-term solution would be to establish a fire district for the entire area or annex to an adjoining district. A similar plan — known as the Delta Fire Protection District — was rejected by voters in 1985.

The report noted that the fire departments of Stockton, French Camp and Tracy are affected most by fires in the unprotected area north of Tracy, because they have the closest stations.

Measured response

The Sept. 26 grass fire on Tracy Boulevard was an unusual case that called for immediate attention because of a threat to the power lines in the area, Nero said.

If the lines fell, they would have blocked Tracy Boulevard and disrupted traffic coming into Tracy.

Nero said a fire engine and water truck were sent to protect the lines.

“You could say that wasn’t a life hazard, but we felt that if it was going to compromise our service area in any way, it was in our best interests, and the interests of this community, to do that,” Nero said.

Division Chief Andrew Kellogg of the Tracy Fire Department said the different area fire departments are always notified when 911 calls from the unprotected area are received by LifeCom dispatch center in Modesto.

A dispatcher contacts the on-duty chief of the department closest to the incident. The on-duty chief then follows a series of guidelines to decide what type of response is necessary, according to Kellogg.

Tracy Fire Department will only send resources, such as an engine or water truck, if there is an immediate threat to life or a serious impact on the community, such as a road closure during the Sept. 26 fire, Kellogg said.

The on-duty chief can also refuse to answer the call, which then goes back to the dispatch center and is assigned to another fire department.

Kellogg said an ambulance will sometimes respond alone, but if the crew sends a request for help, the fire department will always honor it.

Calls within Tracy Fire Department’s normal coverage area don’t need approval from a chief, and fire engines and ambulances are sent based on the severity of the incident, Kellogg said.

Chief Paul Tualla of the French Camp Fire Department said his department responds only if there is an immediate threat to life. That means French Camp, like Tracy, won’t respond if only property is threatened.

“Some people find out the hard way there is no fire protection,” he said.

Tualla said the French Camp McKinley Fire District contracts with 18 homeowners to provide them with fire protection.

“We don’t have a lot of calls out there — we still like to send an engine out there to check things out,” Tualla said.

A grass fire in the unprotected area near Highway 4 recently prompted Tualla to send an engine, because a fire could close the road, and that could have impacted the French Camp community, similar to Tracy’s response to the Tracy Boulevard fire.

Both Nero and Tualla said the bulk of the calls to the unprotected territory are vehicle accidents, but even accident calls have to pass a standard to get a fire response.

“Vehicular accidents where there is someone trapped in the accident — in those cases we would extricate the subject and then turn them over to an ambulance service and then we leave,” Nero said.

Resources rerouted

Nero said that Tracy Fire Department’s eight responses to the unprotected area in 2012-13 didn’t impact regular coverage by the department’s seven stations in the city and in rural Tracy and Mountain House.

“We don’t see it as an issue that is compromising our ability to provide service in the rest of our service area at all,” Nero said. “I don’t see it as a hindrance or a problem. Of course, one could argue one engine being outside of our service area could be problematic, but I don’t see that.”

Nero said that Tracy Fire Department does not get reimbursed for responding to a call in the unprotected area, nor does the department budget money to cover calls to the unprotected area.

Tualla, the French Camp chief, said he plans to meet with Nero to discuss how the departments commit manpower and resources for future responses in the unprotected area.

• Contact Glenn Moore at 830-4252 or gmoore@tracypress.com.

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