Down to 4, fire districts waiting on Stanislaus County

Two rural fire departments in Stanislaus County dropped out of a six-way idea to consolidate, and the remaining four are waiting to see if county leaders will join.

Still exploring a merger are the Salida, Woodland Avenue, Westport and Oakdale Rural districts. They say shrinking revenue could be stretched by sharing administrative duties, not to mention equipment and firefighters.

Opting out in the past month were the Mountain View and West Stanislaus districts.

West Stanislaus board members are studying whether to join forces with Patterson and perhaps Newman. West Stanislaus and Patterson have hired a consultant and are expecting a report in about five months.

Oakdale Rural is studying whether to combine with Oakdale's city department, but wants to keep its options open by continuing to talk with the other three rural departments.

A consultant last year found wide variations in standards, training and response times among 20 autonomous departments across the county. Rising costs and declining revenue should lead to consolidations, the expert suggested.

"My belief is we need to work with the county to make this happen," said Rob Hoyer, Oakdale Rural interim chief, echoing an early July recommendation by the civil grand jury.

Grand jurors, calling the six city and 14 rural departments independently "inefficient," urged county supervisors to take the bull by the horns for the safety of county residents. A few weeks earlier, the six departments initially exploring a merger had asked supervisors for help.

But county leaders legally have until early October to respond formally to the grand jury report. Some have said their power over independent agencies is limited.

Some members of the remaining four agencies, eager to move forward, say they understand the reluctance of the two that dropped out, but are frustrated at the county's pace.

"These are not fire district residents," Hoyer said. "These are county residents. They pay taxes to the county. They have a right to services as any county resident would."

The Bee was unable to reach County Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson for comment Wednesday.

Tom Burns, a Salida fire board member, said, "We haven't given up, but our numbers are dwindling."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.