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For Bay Area residents, fire is on the ballot

on November 2, 2020

Dan Detzner watched in shock as the fire spread rapidly into Sleepy Hollow, a neighborhood near his home. 

In three hours, the flames engulfed 1,500 homes in Orinda, a suburb of Oakland.

Detzner’s house could have been one of them – but the fire wasn’t real. It was a catastrophe model shown by the district’s fire chief. Later, the chief walked Detzner, a retired professor, and his neighbors around their properties to point out vegetation that could easily catch fire. 

The tour woke up his neighborhood.

“Now we’re seeing it like [the fire chief] does,” he said. “I couldn’t enjoy my drive through the neighborhood anymore because the only thing I could see was excess fuel.”

Instead of flammable plants, Detzner’s yard now showcases a sign for Measure R, a ballot initiative that proposes a sales tax hike to pay for road maintenance and wildfire prevention. 

This November, several communities throughout California will vote on the fate of similar ballot measures. Such initiatives are fairly routine, but the circumstances this year are not. Fires are increasing in frequency and size. At the same time, COVID-19 is straining already inadequate state and regional resources for wildfire prevention. 

Those initiatives could potentially determine whether communities can stop fires before they start. Yet, perhaps because the damage hasn’t been as severe as anticipated, or because they feel taxed out, voters seem reluctant to pay to stamp out California’s new endless season of wildfires. 

In South Lake Tahoe, for example, a one-cent general sales tax called Measure S is up for voter approval. It would raise an estimated $5.4 million annually. Fire Chief Clive Savacool said improving his department’s “antiquated” radio communications system is his highest priority. As things stand, some rural areas are dead zones, and in others the firefighters and dispatchers can’t hear each other.

Chief Savacool knows that getting residents to vote for higher taxes is an uphill battle. Last year in El Dorado County, which encompasses South Lake Tahoe, voters rejected a special tax for wildfire prevention and fire services.

“I would say as a city, we put a high priority on public safety – both police and fire,” Chief Savacool said. “My perception is at the state level, they’re putting a high priority on wildfire preparedness. But from the citizen level, I’ve seen nothing but tax measures fail when it comes to trying to get additional funding for fire departments and fire districts.”

In Sonoma County, voters rejected Measure G, another fire-related tax, in March – seven months before the Walbridge and Glass fires tore through the region. Each destroyed hundreds of structures.

Because the measure failed, Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said, his district couldn’t proceed with a planned merger with other districts that would have given them more resources and stability. As a result, he lacks the funds to do long-term planning.

Getting through this year’s record-breaking fire season hasn’t been easy. Fewer people are volunteering to fight fires. If the trend of megafires continues, Chief Bellach predicts that fire departments will be unable to meet their minimum engine staffing requirement, or get the equipment they need. 

Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s director of emergency management, thinks residents are just tired of tax proposals.

“It’s like when does this stop?” Godley said. “I really would chalk this up to fatigue, even in a community that’s been as significantly impacted as Sonoma County has been with fires.”

Paradoxically, the county’s success combatting the 2019 Kincade Fire last October might have contributed to the tax proposal’s defeat. Measure G would have allowed Sonoma to update its alert monitoring system, which notifies residents during an evacuation. But while nearly 80,000 acres burned, nearly half of the county’s 490,000 residents were safely evacuated and no one died. Residents may have developed a false sense of security, suggested Godley. 

He said it was just luck.

“Three times that fire should have come down the hill and torn into a community and it did not because the weather behaved,” he said. “But people took away from that experience that, ‘Well, they seem to have that in hand, maybe they really don’t need this money.’”

As fires become more intense, Godley said fire-threatened areas need funding for better emergency alert and response capabilities. Still, he knows finding the money is going to be challenging. He’s hopeful that a recent California Supreme Court decision, which established that tax initiatives generated by private citizens can be approved by a simple majority, will help push Measure G over the top the next time it comes up for a vote.

In Orinda, a majority vote would push through Measure R, which would authorize a half-cent increase in local sales taxes. Officials started considering Measure R two years ago, said Mayor Darlene Gee. While the tax isn’t earmarked specifically for wildfire prevention, she said clearing vegetation, expanding existing fire mitigation programs, and improving key evacuation routes are priorities.

Gee pointed out that state funding to improve the county’s fire resistance has been inconsistent in the past. With no backup plan, she said the city will likely go back to the drawing board and draft another tax proposal if Measure R fails to pass.

“I don’t think we believe that there’s any funding coming from the state at all,” she said. “Basically what we tell our own residents is, ‘Hey, you know, nobody’s coming to save us.’”

Featured photo by Sasha Hupka.

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