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News: 06/15/2020

Glen Ellen Fire Protection District fades away with consolidation

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Chairman Peter Van Fleet wrapped up 65 years of history with the tap of a virtual gavel at the June 9 Board of Directors meeting Glen Ellen Fire Protection District. The venerable organization will become part of a larger Sonoma Valley Fire District on July 1.

Van Fleet and fellow director Hal Weise also ended their long and satisfying careers serving their community as volunteer firefighters. They resigned, in part, to make way for their fellow directors, Matt Atkinson, Mark Emery, and Mark Johnson, to take seats on the new district's seven-seat board. Both find retirement attractive at this time in their lives.

"I'm ready to go," Weise said in an interview. "I would have served for 40 years in 2021. I was a volunteer for about 33 years and on the board for the last five or six years." When not participating in volunteer duties, Weise operated his family business on Nun's Canyon Road. "I spent 45 plus years as a quarry dog." The quarry is now closed.

Van Fleet, a civil engineer by training, arrived in Sonoma County in 1971. He became a licensed contractor, building and remodeling homes, and later worked with Paul Brown to form Adobe Associates, engineering. He joined the fire department in 1985, the year the Madrone and Arnold fire station was opened.

"I held every position as a firefighter, an association officer, and I became Chief in 2008, serving for six years before turning the job over to Matt (Atkinson) in 2014," when he moved on to the GEFD Board of Directors.

He even took the textbook fire call:

"I got a cat out of a tree," Van Fleet recalled, laughing. "We sent an engine out to check on a possible fire. On the way, we got a cat in the tree call. I went over there myself and sure enough, there was a cat in a tree. I tried to explain to the owner that we don't get cats out of trees; you never see cat skeletons in trees. She was upset, so we hung around and coaxed the kitty down."

Glen Ellen had volunteers fighting fires long before a special fire district was created in 1955, but the tradition of local men - and later, women - stepping up to save community lives and property remained strong until the past decade or so, when property values, demographics, and vastly increased training eviscerated the supply of people available at a moment's notice to respond to emergencies and fires.

A memory of Matt Atkinson being handed the keys to drive a fire truck on his first day of training back in the ‘80s underscored the changes in the job since then for director Van Fleet.

"My main observation is how difficult finding volunteers has become," he said. "As time went on, it got harder and harder to get volunteers during the day."

Even when people were willing, "the amount of training has become prohibitive. You don't know how difficult it is when you tell people what they have to do to become an active member."

Calls were fewer then, and the nature of the calls has changed to where "well over 50 percent of the calls are medical," Van Fleet observed. "The medical training becomes much more important."

Weiss finds the loss of volunteers sad.

"It's too bad people are so busy they don't have the opportunity to experience it," he said. "It is a shame. It makes you more involved in the community. There are a lot of plusses and very few minuses."

A 2019 review of the district by the Local Agency Formation Commission (which oversees all county special districts), found the Glen Ellen firefighters responding to about 350 calls a year, "with 65 percent solely medical-related. Less than 5 percent of the calls are fire related."

Higher costs of professional firefighters, expensive equipment, intensive training, consequent liability, and sheer population growth have pushed the county and its multitudinous independent fire districts to seek cost savings and efficiencies through mergers, such as the one Glen Ellen is doing with the Valley of the Moon Fire District and the county managed Mayacamas Volunteer Fire District. The three former districts will emerge on July 1 as the Sonoma Valley Fire District, with all of the paid and volunteer people working for the new district. The individual firefighter associations will recombine into a new association and merge their funds over the next year, as the law and financial rules allow (i.e., waiting for CDs to mature to avoid early withdrawal penalties, etc.).

Each special district sets its own parcel tax rate. Glen Ellen district voters approved a $200 annual per parcel cap that will now be applied to all residents of the bigger district, though the full amount has yet to be assessed. For the past two years, it has been set at 75 percent, or $150 per parcel.

Business goes on

Meanwhile, the directors tended to their day-to-day business: reviewing finances, reviewing the budget to be carried forward to the new district, tabling a question of building a security fence around the main Glen Ellen station, and dealing with issues that will face the department under the new organization.

Starting June 22, firefighters will begin inspecting selected properties for vegetation management, pointing out dangerous vegetation situations to approximately 400 property owners. The exact areas to be inspected have not been specified.

The directors also agreed to remove a dying tree from Station #5 (the main Glen Ellen firehouse on Arnold Drive), inasmuch as a professional tree cutter has offered to do the work for free.

A sticky element of the new seven-seat board will be establishing district elections for future representation. Right now, directors in both Valley of the Moon and Glen Ellen districts are elected regardless of where they live; it so happens that they live fairly close together. This could be a problem in setting up new election districts without illegal contortions just to maintain incumbents. That will probably not be dealt with until after the Census 2020 numbers are official, said Steve Akre who will be the Fire Chief of the new Sonoma Valley Fire District.

For now, "they can draw straws" or work out whatever means the new district directors choose to select board officers.


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