Foothill fire district needs volunteers

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comAugust 5, 2013 

— Officials from the Mariposa Public Utility District Fire Department are sounding the alarm on what they call a serious "dilemma" — a diminishing number of volunteers.

The district is staffed solely by volunteers, which has dwindled to a half dozen, and is responsible for about 800 acres. The six volunteers include: one fire chief, a deputy chief, a captain, two engineers and one firefighter, according to MPUD Fire Capt. Dennis Buck.

"We need to draw some attention to this because we're getting to the point that it's critical," Buck said. "We have so much to do that six full-time members can't do it all. It's getting difficult for us."

Buck said the problem is primarily a lack of personnel, not funding. Because it's a volunteer department, costs are relatively low compared to fire protection agencies with full-time, paid staff.

If enough volunteers don't come forward, Buck said, the future of the MPUD Fire Department is in doubt. That would send insurance rates climbing.

There are alternatives, he said, such as contracting for fire protection service with other agencies, but that would be far more costly for residents. "One way or another," he said, "people will pay more for it."

The MPUD Fire Department is funded primarily by a "fire protection fee" charged to residents each month, according to Mark Rowney, general manager of the Mariposa Public Utility District, which also provides water and sewer.

The fee runs about $4.50 for a single-family residence, he said. The district also gets 5 percent of its funding from a share of property taxes. Last year, the MPUD Fire Department received $101,872 in revenue, which was used for equipment maintenance, loan payments and utility bills.

The MPUD Fire Department covers fire and medical emergencies in the town of Mariposa, with the Mariposa County Fire Department handling fires in the county's rural areas.

Both agencies provide automatic and mutual aid to each other in the event of large-scale fires.

Mike Radanovich, 59, owner of Fremont House in downtown Mariposa, said the decrease in the number of volunteers causes concern, especially because the town has so many historic buildings.

"It does create a little sense of worry," said Radanovich, whose retail business has been in the same location since 1956. The building dates back to the 1800s, he said.

"These buildings are old down here, so it creates a bigger issue because they're not as fire protected," Radanovich said. "They burn quicker and spread faster."

Jim Wilson, fire chief at the Mariposa County Fire Department, said his department has a total of 205 volunteers, which is a step up from 83 volunteers seven years ago.

Still, Wilson said his department needs about 250 to 275 volunteers to adequately staff its response area.

"I think for small rural fire departments like MPUD and us, having volunteers available is the only way we can afford to provide a level of emergency service," Wilson said. "If there is no one there to respond when the pager goes off, we're not going to have an adequate number of people to respond to fires and medical needs."

A decrease in volunteerism is a nationwide trend in the fire industry, Wilson said. The main reason is that people aren't able to commit time to ongoing training while juggling career and family demands, he said.

The MPUD Fire Department is looking for four types of volunteers: firefighters, who train for 64 hours; medical responders, who train for 48 hours; driver-operators, who train for 40 hours, and support personnel, who don't need training to get started.

Buck said volunteers must be 18 years or older with a clean driving record. No experience is necessary, as the department provides full training and gear. Volunteers can work as many hours a week as they want, Buck said.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer should call the MPUD office at (209) 966-2515 or Buck at (209) 966-5807.

Later this month, MPUD plans to hold a public meeting in Mariposa to discuss the current crisis and review its options with residents.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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