Fire season is coming for the dry East Bay. One community doesn’t have the money

Thick morning heat scorched the east Contra Costa County suburb of Brentwood. At Fire Station 52, the calls were already coming in.

There was one fire that day: A transformer explosion in nearby Oakley downed two power lines and set a fence ablaze. But the radio also buzzed with multiple medical emergencies, including a stroke and sudden death, which required firefighters to go out again and again. This was the relative calm in mid-June, before another wildfire season threatens to engulf vast swaths of California in flames this summer and autumn.

Battalion Chief Jeff Burris, of Station 52, gritted his teeth.

“It’s nerve-racking,” he said. “You try not to think about it.”

In many ways, east Contra Costa County shows the disconnect between public attitudes, development patterns and increasingly bleak environmental realities across California. The residents’ predicament stems from Proposition 13, a rigid cap on property taxes that state voters passed in 1978. At that time, east county was a sparsely populated string of farm towns and orchards, served by on-call or volunteer firefighters. The cost of battling blazes was low; the law assumed it would stay that way.

“When Prop. 13 went into play, there were 3,000 residents out here,” Oakley resident and fire district board President Brian Oftedal said. “And the volunteers would be mowing their lawns with little Plectron radios at their hips, and then they’d jump in their pickup trucks” to drive to an emergency.

Yet that was before the suburban boom and climate change converged to turn fire season into a ruthless new normal. East Contra Costa County Fire Protection District currently has three fire stations and crews — half of what it needs to serve a 249-square-mile area with 128,000 people, according to multiple studies commissioned by the district.

In August, the district’s firefighters spent more than a week battling lightning complex fires that gnawed through Marsh Creek and Morgan Territory, where mansions line two-lane roads on the north side of Mount Diablo. This summer could be worse, given the sweltering heat, the drought and a dearth of firefighting resources amid changing times.

East county’s population and emergency call volume swelled over the past decade, from 6,260 calls in 2011 to 7,639 in 2020. Average response times increased by 32% in those nine years, from 6:27 in 2011 to 8:29 in 2020.

While district spending and staffing have appeared to keep pace, east Contra Costa receives half the property tax share granted to neighboring fire agencies. The low allocation was based on population demands in the 1970s and locked in by Prop. 13, which has so far withstood court challenges and reform efforts.

“We have this pie that’s allocated based on the way the world was back in the 1970s,” Michael Coleman, an expert on local government finance, said of Prop. 13.

He noted that some jurisdictions are facing the reverse plight of east Contra Costa: Sacramento and Los Angeles counties have large urban fire districts in their unincorporated areas, so Prop. 13 cemented their property tax allocations at a relatively high rate at the expense of other services.

That’s not the case in east Contra Costa, where Oftedal is among many local officials pressing for an overhaul. They want to merge operations with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District — the bigger agency in the central county — and extract a third of the $81 million annual revenue generated by Measure X, the half-cent sales tax that passed last year.

The idea has skeptics, from the Antioch mayor, who would like to see the Measure X tax spent on other things, to residents who don’t want to give up local control from their elected fire board. Advocates call it a sensible compromise for a district where taxpayers complain about the inadequate fire response but have resisted three attempts to fix it.

Voters rejected ballot measures to raise taxes or fees in 2012, 2015 and 2016. Now the district routinely pulls engines and crews from greater Contra Costa to supplement its modest labor force and equipment.

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