Editorials

Our View: Does Oakdale need its own fire department?

Stanislaus Consolidated Fire crews trained in swift water rescue continued to search the Stanislaus River Wednesday March 20, 2019 for five year old Matilda Ortiz that fell into the water Sunday near Knights Ferry, Calif.
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire crews trained in swift water rescue continued to search the Stanislaus River Wednesday March 20, 2019 for five year old Matilda Ortiz that fell into the water Sunday near Knights Ferry, Calif. Stanislaus County Sheriff's Dept

The demise of the arrangement providing fire protection to Oakdale and surrounding rural areas for the past five years seems like bad news. But that unraveling could prove to be a blessing in disguise for people who live there, and maybe for the firefighters now in limbo, if an even better partnership arises.

For five years, the city and the region around it have been served by Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, which absorbed the former Oakdale Fire Department and the former Oakdale Rural Fire Protection District. The 21 transferred firefighters have done their job, and many say they’ve done it well, but trouble always seems to be hanging around Stanislaus Consolidated’s board and management. They changed chiefs four times in 5 1/2 years, leaving vacant the top spot nearly three years combined, and some of those departures were ugly and embarrassing.

Now Consolidated’s finances are hemorrhaging, the Oakdale City Council has been told, despite receiving $2.4 million a year from the city and another $2 million from Oakdale Rural. Those agencies, already upset at having little control over their contracts with Consolidated, asked for better terms in a new contract when the current one expires June 30. But both sides could not reach agreement and it looks like they’re not going to patch things up.

It’s too bad, for various reasons:

  • Stanislaus Consolidated — which also covers Riverbank, Empire, Waterford, Modesto’s Beard Industrial District and other rural areas — could be in a lot of trouble, losing two major clients. Its leaders probably should have tried harder in negotiations.
  • Once again, a fire merger has failed. Remember the ill-fated union between the Modesto Fire Department, the Salida Fire district and the Stanislaus County fire warden’s office? They parted ways in 2014 after only three years — even faster than the Oakdale experiment with Consolidated ended.
  • And now Oakdale and its rural environs will be without fire protection in a few short weeks, unless they come up with a solution in short order.

The likely options, as outlined by Bee reporter Ken Carlson back in February, include partnering in some fashion with the Modesto Fire Department, or recreating standalone departments for Oakdale and Oakdale Rural. Oakdale Mayor J.T. McCarty says all 21 firefighters originating with the Oakdale agencies would keep their jobs under either scenario; that’s a plus.

The latter option doesn’t seem wise, because so little time remains to prepare and because small agencies always seem to struggle with finances and capacity.

For example, the heartbreaking March search for the body of 5-year-old Matilda Ortiz in a stretch of the Stanislaus River near Knights Ferry would have drained Oakdale Rural’s entire resources, leaving vulnerable the rest of Knights Ferry, Valley Home and huge country swaths around Woodward Reservoir and Modesto Reservoir. Those areas were covered because of Consolidated’s arrangements with neighboring agencies, including Modesto. The Oakdale agencies ought to think twice before deciding to go it alone.

The thought of contracting with Modesto, or pursuing some sort of partnership, is intriguing. We would expect Modesto has learned from mistakes made in the experiment with Salida, and will be careful to avoid repeating them. Let’s see what they come up with in the next week or so.

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