Five fire departments in Mendocino County will receive money to buy new fire engines, which they hope to receive in the next two years. Last week, Senator Mike McGuire announced that the state has committed $2 million to rural fire departments in Mendocino and Humboldt counties to buy a total of ten type six fire engines, which are designed for rugged conditions. He said that fifteen rural fire districts and departments from the two counties have been meeting with his office for a year to work out a regional fire defense plan.
The northern Mendocino County departments that will receive the funding for engines are Covelo, Laytonville, Leggett, Piercy, and Westport. Bell Springs and Whale Gulch will receive firefighter training and grant writing support.
Eli Ryder, Chief of the Leggett Volunteer Fire Department, typified the experience of rural volunteer firefighters, who cover vast areas on a shoestring budget with small crews. His department’s six volunteers respond to all kinds of emergencies in about 250 square miles of territory, from the Humboldt County line to Rockport. “While it is common to have local, state and federal agencies working together side by side, it is the fifteen local volunteer fire departments that are the backbone for emergency response in an area of approximately 1,100 square miles in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties,” he said. “Economic and climate changes over the past decade have increased the call volume, fire behavior, minimum training requirements, operating costs, wear and tear on equipment, and most importantly, increased wear and tear on the mental health of our local emergency responders.”
McGuire also said that just under $4 million in fire prevention grants from CalFire will be awarded to Mendocino County. Sonoma and Humboldt counties will get smaller portions of the $6 million total, with Humboldt receiving a little over $980,000, and Sonoma getting about $900,000. The grant awards will be disbursed to fire departments, special districts, and nonprofit organizations across the three-county region.
Ron Busch, the deputy chief of operations for the Sonoma County Fire District, will be able to buy two type three fire engines to replace old equipment. And he pointed out that one reality of fighting modern massive wildfires is that they’re not always regional. “The funding allows Sonoma County Fire District to purchase the wildland engines to be able to combat wildfires not only in Sonoma County but also throughout the state of California,” he said. “In fact, in the last two weeks to a month, we’ve had engines as far south as Riverside.”
McGuire and Chief Nickolas Pape from Shelter Cove in Humboldt County offered a rough timeline of when the funding and the engines are expected to arrive at the departments. McGuire anticipates that the departments will receive the full amount, which comes from the state general fund, by the end of this year or the first quarter of 2024. Each of the districts have already initiated the contracts needed to expedite the purchase and construction of the vehicles.
Pape added that he hopes the large order of ten engines for Mendocino and Humboldt counties will make for an efficient process. “We’re hoping by mid to late fire season next year to start rolling these things out,” he said. “It all depends on when the funding’s actually there for the chassis…but as soon as possible to get these into the hands of our firefighters and out on the streets.”
Busch is looking forward to retiring his thirty-year-old engines, while Pape said one fifty-year-old engine in Southern Humboldt is still seeing front line service. “We want to get rid of the unsafe equipment,” he said. “We don’t even want to send it to another country. We want to take it out of service, put it on a ranch somewhere.” More gently used engines that are only fifteen to twenty years old will be passed down to smaller departments. As for the one that is half a century old, he assured McGuire, “That one is not going to be passed down.”
McGuire hinted that there will be more money for volunteer fire departments in the future, calling this first flurry “a down payment” on modernizing equipment.