South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue one of two districts considered ‘great’ in El Dorado County

Eric Jaramishian
Mountain Democrat
South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue is one of only two districts considered “great.” in El Dorado County.
Mike Peron / Tahoe Daily Tribune

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Meek’s Bay Fire Protection District is set to be annexed by North Tahoe Fire Protection District in Placer County.

After considering staffing issues and rising costs of expenses, Meek’s Bay Fire Protection District Board President Edward Miller told the Mountain Democrat the move will be beneficial to both El Dorado and Placer counties.

“We have a very supportive and loyal citizenship in this area and as long as we can get the red engines out there, it will be the same for them,” Miller said.

Meek’s Bay district, ranging from Emerald Bay to Tahoma in the Tahoe Basin, regardless of the consolidation has already been receiving contracted services from North Tahoe Fire for the last nine years, Miller said.

The annexation is made possible after El Dorado County’s Local Agency Formation Commission voted to reduce Meek’s Bay Fire’s sphere of influence to zero in preparation for the mutually agreed upon consolidation.

Based on a study conducted by South Fork Consulting, Meek’s Bay Fire’s fiscal and deployment conditions were found, along with seven other El Dorado County fire districts out of 13, to be “limited” or “deficient.” Fallen Leaf Lake Community Services District is the sole agency ranked “deficient.”

LAFCO commissioners recommended keeping the spheres of influence for all other fire districts the same at their April 27 meeting.

Six fire agencies on the West Slope were determined to be “limited” — El Dorado County, Diamond Springs-El Dorado, Garden Valley, Mosquito, Georgetown and Rescue fire protection districts.

Planning for an annexation of Rescue by El Dorado Hills came to a halt last month.

The El Dorado Hills Fire Department on the West Slope and South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue in the Tahoe Basin are the only two districts considered “great.”

The average parcel tax to fund county fire agencies is $384. The average of property tax per parcel spans from a low of $128 for Fallen Leaf Lake CSD to a high of $1,015 for El Dorado Hills Fire.

According to the study, “limited” fire departments struggle with insufficient staffing levels, negative net positions, requiring more aid from neighboring agencies and were found to be at or below average for meeting infrastructure needs and providing sufficient services to meet current and future demands.

Agencies with a negative net position are Lake Valley, El Dorado County, Georgetown Fire, Rescue Fire and Diamond Springs-El Dorado fire protection districts, meaning any past revenue deficits will need to be made up from future revenue.

The report shows El Dorado County Fire had the highest negative net position at approximately $25 million. However, with net pension liabilities payments removed from that calculation, El Dorado County Fire has a positive net position of more than $44,000.

“We are remaining in the black and operating as financially prudent and as good stewards of our tax dollars as we can be,” El Dorado County Fire Chief Tim Cordero said. “We’ve had to make some changes operationally to maintain our black position with our finances.”

The report states that county fire agencies have insufficient funds for increases in operational, personnel and maintenance costs, as well as for major capital improvements.

“If you look at the financial stability and abilities that most of the fire districts have, although the county is dealing with it, it is pretty limited and most of us are hanging on,” Cordero said. “As you travel east in the county, you see less and less growth and development. Unfortunately, that means there are fewer tax dollars coming in to support the fire agencies. That’s the challenge we all face.”

The study found that Diamond Springs-El Dorado, Rescue and Lake Valley are trending in a positive net direction, allowing these agencies the opportunity to add to reserves. Georgetown and El Dorado County are trending downward as their revenues over expenditures continue to decline.

Most fire agencies on the West Slope have a model of three personnel or less assigned to an engine — a minimum of four personnel to an engine is recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. However, many fire agencies across the state make a crew of three work, according to the study.

In order to meet California Division of Occupational Safety and Health requirements, fire agencies operating with less than three firefighters to an engine would need to wait for aid or resources from another station when responding to structure fires before entering a building.

Of the 45 fire stations on the West Slope, 42% are staffed full-time, 18% are staffed part-time or seasonally and 40% are not staffed, stated the report. Of the stations not staffed, nine were historically staffed by volunteers.

Of the 10 fire stations in the Tahoe Basin, six are staffed full-time, two are staffed part-time or seasonally and two are not staffed.

Approximately 150 volunteers were estimated to be available countywide, half the 300 volunteers available in 2010.

Miller said training volunteers to fight fires has challenges.

“It just cannot be reasonably done,” Miller expained. “We used to recruit volunteers a long time ago but with the changing nature of fire service with new regulations and training time, it’s not practical.”

The Cameron Park, Garden Valley, Georgetown, Mosquito, Pioneer and Rescue fire departments still utilize volunteers.

Hiring firefighters can also have its challenges.

“We are in trouble,” El Dorado Hills Fire Department Chief Maurice Johnson told LAFCO commissioners. “We are seeing a lot of firefighters leaving the workforce, because it’s a lot of time away from your family and other important things other than just your job. That is why we are having a hard time recruiting firefighters, even in El Dorado Hills.”

Cordero said there could be benefits to regionalize fire services in the county, but lack of funding to do so would make it hard.

“If you take three departments and bring them together, and they’re still struggling financially, all you have is a bigger agency that’s still struggling financially,” Cordero said.

El Dorado LAFCO also voted to host two fire agency summits, one on the West Slope and one in the Tahoe Basin within the next two years.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Edward Miller is Board President for Meek’s Bay Fire Protection District. Steve Leighton is Fire Chief for both Meek’s Bay Fire and North Tahoe Fire.

The article has also been updated to reflect that Meek’s Bay Fire has been receiving contracted services from North Tahoe Fire for the past nine years.

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