Lack of volunteer firefighters, equipment and rainfall may mean a harsh fire year for Bonny Doon
A fire season in California is never good news, inevitable as it is. But the outlook is even worse if an all-volunteer fire department is understaffed and under-geared, and also if the state has been suffering from low rainfall.
This is the situation Bonny Doon currently finds itself in. Located just northwest of Santa Cruz, the isolated census-designated place of about 2,700 people isn’t served by any local fire departments (though it is served by CAL FIRE, a statewide agency that tackles wildfire issues), so it has managed on its own with a team of professional firefighters and EMTs. All of them are volunteers, and their ranks have been thinning lately.
“We began as a civil defense force in the 1950s, after World War II,” says John Forbes, company commander of Bonny Doon Volunteer Fire and Rescue. “After the Korean War, there was a surplus of war equipment that we converted to use for firefighting.”
In the past, there were around 25 volunteers on the force, says Forbes. Now there are far fewer. But regardless of its size, the Bonny Doon volunteer fire service is integral to the town it services.
“We have one driver now, and we’ve only got about six or seven people who actually respond [to emergency calls],” says Forbes. “But we were one of the first [fire] engines on the scene at the Lockheed fire [of 2009], even though we weren’t called.”
It is not just firefighting incidents that Forbes and the department are worried about. Bonny Doon’s isolated and mountainous location makes it difficult for out-of-town emergency services to reach residents in a timely fashion, so the volunteer department handles those, too. Understaffing hurts that aspect of their job as well, but other obstacles they have had to overcome include their lack of gear and advanced training.
“The average age here in Bonny Doon is about 50, so we decided that we really needed paramedics up here; you need them a lot more in rural areas than you do in urban ones,” says Forbes. “We really want to upgrade some of our medical bags—Bonny Doon is roughly 50 square miles, and most of our equipment responds from one location. There’s a constant need for bags with oxygen and things like that, so we can respond to emergencies without having to wait for the truck to get there.”
Nature isn’t helping the department’s stress levels this year, either. With rainfall substantially below average for the season, they say the stakes are even higher.
“Seasonal rainfall amounts in the city’s Loch Lomond Reservoir watershed are at about 32 inches, compared to a long-term average of about 50 inches per year,” says Toby Goddard, water conservation manager of the Santa Cruz Water Department.
The Central Coast, and California at large, has been hit hard by the dry spell.
“This year, we’ve only had about 70 percent of our average annual rainfall in the City of Santa Cruz—just a little over 21 inches,” says Goddard. “In a normal year we’d get up to 31 inches. It’s been, both locally and around the state, a low rainfall year.”
With the colossal blazes of 2008 still relatively fresh in the minds of the community, the Bonny Doon Volunteer Fire Department is doing all it can to raise awareness and resources in time for the rapidly approaching fire season.
“Every year is potentially a bad burn year,” says Forbes. “It’s like living next to a dynamite factory, and people are walking past, smoking cigarettes.”
An upcoming fundraiser titled “Dressage in the Redwoods” is slated for June 9 at Vigne Farms Equestrian Center, with proceeds going to Bonny Doon Fire and Rescue. Live music, wine and art will accompany the dressage exhibition.
Fundraisers like the Vigne Farms event are necessary for the maintenance of volunteer programs like the Bonny Doon Fire and Rescue; with fire protection taxes not fully covering operational expenses, the volunteers must turn to the community for support.
“We need radios, we need medical bags; I’ve seen it all over the last 40 years, people in the most compromising situations,” says Forbes. “When is the next big burn going to happen? I don’t know. Is it going to happen? Absolutely.”
Tickets for the June 9 fundraiser are $15 at the gate. Vigné Farms is located at 3675 Bonny Doon Road, Santa Cruz. For more information call 420-0800.ࢹ