Butte County supervisors close north Chico fire station
On the night of Dec. 3, 2006, Terry Cleveland was settling into bed at his home on the northern outskirts of Chico when his wife came in to report something was amiss. He followed her downstairs, where an unfamiliar sound prompted him to walk outside in search of the source. That’s when he saw 10-foot flames pouring out of the eaves of the couple’s two-story farmhouse.
“We called 911 and started gathering up all the kids, computers, guns and pictures to load in the car,” Cleveland recalled Tuesday (May 23) as he spoke during the Board of Supervisors meeting regarding the possible closure of Butte County Fire Station 42, from which firefighters responded to his call for help.
“They arrived in six minutes and they moved all of our furniture and everything out of the way before they broke into our attic and started pouring in water,” Cleveland continued. “They were so careful with our property and did a wonderful job.”
Cleveland said the fire ultimately forced him and his wife to replace the home’s second story, but it likely would have been a complete loss had a crew from Station 42 not arrived so swiftly.
“That area is located at the mouth of Rock Creek and Mud Creek canyons, so it’s like a funnel,” he said. “There’s so much human activity out there by the airport that, if a fire starts, it can turn into a real disaster in short order. [With fire season just starting], I can imagine people sitting here four months from now saying, ‘Why did you close that fire station?’”
Despite additional comments from other local residents and Butte County Fire Department Chief Darren Reed in favor of keeping Station 42 open, the board ultimately voted 3-1 (with Chico Supervisor Larry Wahl dissenting and Maureen Kirk, the other Chico supervisor, absent) to close the outpost, effective July 1.
The discussion of fire services didn’t end there. The board also considered moving forward with a scheme to establish a new fire protection district to replace the cooperative agreement the county has had with Cal Fire since 1931.
Debate over the cost of fire service first flared up in summer 2015, when the county found it had to budget $1.1 million more than expected due to pay raises and increased costs of employee benefits, while having no say in Cal Fire labor negotiations. It’s become a hot topic again as the county faces an estimated $3 million budget shortfall for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The county hired a third party, the Matrix Consulting Group, to look at ways to cut fire service costs, and the consultants issued a report in April. Recommendations included the off-season (November to May) closure of stations in Stirling City, Jarbo Gap and Berry Creek, but the board voted April 25 to keep those open year-round through next summer. Matrix also suggested asking the city of Chico to fund Station 42, as roughly 80 percent of that station’s calls come from inside city limits.
But Chico has its own fire service issues, and in March cut staffing for its department from 17 to 14 and closed two stations after losing grant funding that previously covered those costs. Supervisors recently asked the city to pay the roughly $1 million annually to keep Station 42 open, but the city declined in a May 10 letter from Chico City Manager Mark Orme to Butte County Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn.
Butte County Fire Chief Reed, in addressing the board, noted the Matrix study didn’t take into account Chico’s recent cutbacks, which he said have resulted in diminished service to west Chico. He acknowledged Station 42 responded to over 2,000 calls from Chico residents in 2016, and emphasized its 236 responses to calls from unincorporated areas in the same period. Reed said he’d support moving Station 42 to the now-closed location of Chico Fire Station 6 (on Highway 32 near East Avenue), but not its closure. (Chico Fire Station 3, located at the Chico Municipal Airport, also closed in March.)
Reed also noted that Cal Fire and the Chico Fire Department have an agreement to answer calls in or outside city limits using the closest resources: “We’ll always be team players to provide the best service to the community we can, whether they live in the city or unincorporated areas,” he said.
Wahl made a motion to use reserve funds to keep Station 42 open, but nobody seconded. He also had harsh words for Chico officials who balked at picking up the tab for Station 42.
“The city of Chico sorely disappoints me … to leave over 3,000 families’ homes without adequate protection is just very unfortunate, and that’s the kindest word I can use for it,” he said.
The supervisors also considered directing county staff to begin the application process with the Butte Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo)—a state-mandated agency that oversees the formation or consolidation of new districts and services—to establish a county-wide fire district, a move also recommended in the Matrix study. They decided to punt that action until at least July, so that county staff can better gauge whether governing bodies of the county’s five municipalities—Chico, Oroville, Gridley, Paradise and Biggs—would consider joining the district, and so that Supervisor Kirk could be present for the discussion.