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Local CAL FIRE expansion off to a solid start

By Jay Gamel

County supervisors approved leasing unused Los Guilicos facilities off Pythian Road to the state’s firefighting agency to house and train a wildfire hand crew. The deal finds a use for vacant facilities and brings a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) hand crew back to the county to help with local and regional fires.

The proposed use would be CAL FIRE’s first fire camp based in Sonoma County since the 1990s.

A firefighting team is expected to occupy former Sierra Youth Center buildings during fire season (approximately nine months a year), and a fuel abatement team would occupy the buildings during the wet season (approximately three months a year), according to staff documents presented to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Feb. 8. The lease was approved without discussion or comment.

“I very much support this lease and rehabilitation of the former Sierra Youth Center,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said, noting that 2017 and 2020 wildfires damaged buildings at the site.

The Los Guilicos County Center is situated between Highway 12 and Mt. Hood at Pythian Road.

“A permanent presence of CAL FIRE on the site could help with vegetation management efforts to create a buffer between the campus and Hood Mountain Regional Park,” Gorin added.

Hand crews are teams of people who cut firebreaks with shovels, pickaxes, and chainsaws to stop or slow wildland fires.

“They are critical in woodland responses,” Sonoma Valley Fire District Chief Steve Akre said. To have that resource so local will be of tremendous value not only throughout the valley, but throughout the county. We’re supportive of anything that can be done to increase the hand crews.”

There are 196 crews operating throughout the state, housed at a fluctuating number of Conservation Camps as staffing has changed from an inmate work program to civilian employees over the past few years. Since the last Sonoma County camp was closed, the closest camps to Sonoma Valley have been based in Suisun and south of Redding, according to CAL FIRE maps.

Ben Nicholls is a CAL FIRE division chief who is currently assigned to Sonoma County Emergency Operations Center and is working on emergency response to future disasters. He has 24 years of service and specific knowledge of vegetation management and fire crews.

“For us, hand crews are an important part of any major fire event,” Nicholls said. “They cut the hand line around fires to starve them, which allows us to contain them. Crews are a unique resource; they get where bulldozers and engines can’t. They are an integral part of fire operations in large fires.” CAL FIRE will lease the dormitory and classrooms of the former Sierra Youth Center, both of which will require some upgrading to meet the needs of future residents. The lease will run from this April 1 through March 31, 2025. Using the county’s historical expenses for the buildings when formerly occupied, costs are projected to run nearly $70,000 for the first year and $60,000 for each subsequent year of the lease.

In return, the state will keep year-round crews there and “render appropriate fire protection services for the benefit of the local community,” according to the lease. It will also pay rent, utilities, and costs to maintain the premises.

The county will repair the roof, replace high-security door locks with standard door locks, replace a stove, and seal flooring. Those costs would be recouped by the county through the state rents.