Cambria’s fire department could find itself without a fire chief in mid-July, just as the town faces a summer of extreme fire danger, more drought and many dying or dead trees in the 3,200-acre Monterey pine forest.
That’s when Mark Miller, the current fire chief and fire marshal, expects to serve his last shifts at the Cambria Fire Department, before taking his accrued leave and officially retiring in late September or early October.
The Cambria Community Services District, which administers the department, hasn’t yet begun a search for Miller’s replacement, General Manager Jerry Gruber said June 1.
The recruitment process often takes several months, but for now, Gruber said he’s not sure whether the district will hire another fire chief.
Before deciding whether to replace Miller, Gruber said, CCSD board members must decide if that’s the course they want to take.
At the board’s June 28 meeting, Gruber will ask directors to form an ad hoc committee to “further discuss what the grand jury recommended” this year about fire and other emergency services.
That meeting starts at 12:30 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building.
There have been indications of the district’s possible opinion:
- The department’s union firefighters have been working without a contract for 18 months (directors pulled that item from their May 28 agenda).
- A primary fire engine is long past its prime, with no funding set aside to replace it.
- Other equipment is aging and needs extensive maintenance.
- The district board has been inconsistent about levying the most recent annual fire-benefit assessment, which voters approved in 2003 to ensure the Fire Department was staffed around the clock and equipment was kept up to date.
- The department budget has been cut in recent years.
A 2015 grand jury report on emergency services recommended CCSD and the Cambria Community Healthcare District “reactivate their ad hoc committee to integrate and coordinate activities and obtain community input.” However, the same report also advised that Cal Fire should make a presentation about contracting to take over Cambria’s fire suppression.
If that were to happen, Cal Fire would replace the town’s stand-alone department that began as the Hope Fire Company in 1877.
To see the grand jury’s report, go to www.slocourts.net/grand_jury/ and click on Current Reports.
According to the CCSD website, Cambria Fire provides a wide range of round-the-clock fire protection, prevention, rescue and emergency medical services to the small town in a remote location.
The community-services-oriented department also provides training and public education programs, building-safety inspections and a major annual fuel-hazard reduction program (weed abatement), helps coordinate the Community Emergency Response Team and oversees the North Coast Ocean Rescue Team.
Local firefighters also help people who need assistance in getting up or changing batteries in smoke detectors. Through the decades, the firefighters have taught students about fire safety, hosted fire musters, countywide drills and conferences, put on a Halloween haunted house, and have even rescued kittens from trees.
Gruber said he sees three options for seeking a new fire chief, if that’s the direction the board selects after directors determine what they feel is best for the community, with an emphasis on both the bottom-line expense and highest quality fire service.
“We could hire a recruitment firm,” Gruber said. “They can do an executive search in as little as three or four months, if they really want to expedite it.”
The second option would be to hire an interim fire chief, he said, perhaps from Regional Government Services, “which has a pool of highly qualified fire chiefs.
“The third option would be to bring in Cal Fire on an interim basis,” as the district did for a month in 2011.
That action came after former CCSD general manager Tammy Rudock fired Miller, triggering a firestorm of objections from a wide range of community members. The district ultimately fired Rudock and rehired Miller, who had been with the department since 2005 (as assistant chief, moving up to chief in 2008).
Miller said that, in preparation for his retirement, the district also could hire an interim fire chief who already knows Cambria well, with its complex web of often-narrow hilly streets, dense forested areas and extreme fire danger during the drought. He recommended someone like retired Morro Bay fire chief Mike Pond, who, in the 1970s, was Cambria’s first full-time paid firefighter.
In the end, Miller said, “It doesn’t matter whose patch is on the sleeve. It’s the quality and response of the fire service and how it serves the people who pay for it.”
County/Cal Fire Chief Rob Lewin said June 8 that, while “there’s been no formal request” from CCSD about doing a presentation to take over Cambria’s fire service, “Cal Fire is prepared to explore any means that we can help Cambria to make sure they’re prepared for this fire season and into the future.”
Cal Fire’s Station 10 is on Happy Hill. One of three Cal Fire battalion chiefs in the county oversees operations, although rarely at the station itself. During fire season, three to four firefighters staff the station; in wintertime, that can drop to two. Crews rotate into and out of the station, depending on fire requirements elsewhere in the county and the state.
Lewin said he hasn’t researched what a current Cal Fire presentation would include, or what a comparable range of services would cost the services district if Cal Fire were to replace Cambria Fire. Those costs would depend on which services Cal Fire would provide.
A full-service cooperative agreement for Cal Fire to take over all operations of Cambria Fire would take about a year to implement, he said, especially if some current local employees need to be transferred into the Cal Fire ranks.
He said it would take about a month to put a county contract in place for the interim period.
“If I was approached and they (CCSD) had an immediate need, then I’d have to approach the county to see if they’re interested.”
In the past, Cal Fire officials have said they wouldn’t prepare a full presentation, with costs included, until the district had committed to making the change.
But time is marching on, summer’s coming and some members of the community who have been watching the calendar and recent district discussions say they’re worried about the looming situation.
Jeri Farrell, a member of the Community Emergency Response Team, told district directors May 28 that while she favors combining some facets of the services and health care districts, “I’ve also heard our fire department may be phased into Cal Fire,” which she doesn’t endorse.
Cambria has its own fire department, she said, with “our own core people. They know our roads, know how to get around” quickly in Cambria’s often confusing roadways and neighborhoods.
In an emergency, “even five minutes can make a very big difference,” Farrell stressed.
“I’ve also been told this decision doesn’t need to come to a vote” by Cambrians, she said, and she thinks that’s wrong.
Jerry Wood of Cambria said going to Cal Fire “would severely impact the overall fire and life safety of Cambria. … If this is a ‘cost savings’ idea, I believe that it is a false concept” because “many of the programs that the board feels would be gained by going to Cal Fire are already in place and available.”
He said Cambria Fire “has served Cambria extremely well for many years with dedicated staff both paid and volunteer. It would be a tragedy to see it be eliminated without due process in a public forum” that would give residents and property owners a chance to voice their opinions.
Wood encouraged people to attend the June 25 meeting and do just that.