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Ron Fink: During Holiday Fire, Public Safety Staff Came Through Again

There has been a lot of talk about the recent grand jury report concerning the financial condition of Santa Barbara County and every city and special district in the county that seems to have been caused by poor management of the employee retirement system.

I say poorly managed because the rosy projected earnings used by fund managers to establish contributions for decades has rarely, well almost never, been achieved. Their investment strategy seems to be lackluster as well, thus there is a shortage of money in the bank to pay retired employees. Just who are some of these employees?

The public safety budget comprises the largest item in every government's General Fund budget. It takes a lot of highly qualified employees to staff police/fire agencies around-the-clock, 365 days a year. They are always at the ready to assist when needed.

July 6 was a hot, windy Friday on the South Coast as well as the rest of the county. These conditions place police/fire agencies on the edge of their seats because this is when dreadful things happen quickly. That Friday evening would be no different. Public safety dispatchers know from experience that the “big one” is only one 9-1-1 call away.

About 8:15 p.m., South Coast fire crews were dispatched to what turned out to be a minor incident in Goleta. As they were on the way back to their stations, the tones rang out again and several fire and sheriff units were dispatched to what would become the Holiday Fire near the intersection of North Fairview Avenue and Holiday Hill Road.

For those of you unfamiliar with this area, North Fairview is a two-lane road, flanked by ranches, clusters of homes, brush and trees. There are several large homes in the area, and the two-lane road is the only way in or out of the area.

Within seconds of the dispatcher completing a roll call of units responding, the first arriving units advised that there was a substantial fire, temperatures were in the upper 90s and the wind was blowing strong downhill. These winds are commonly referred to as “sundowners.”

A book written by Raymond Ford Jr. in 1991, Santa Barbara Wildfires, aptly describes what happened in several large fires that occurred between 1955 and 1991. So, conditions like this are common in the hills. Firefighters rely on the experiences of the past to dictate firefighting strategy in these situations.

The battalion chief, realizing the potential of this fire, immediately ordered a “second alarm,” which would double the current response, then added a request for 25 additional “immediate need” engines to respond. I am sure that the dispatcher was overwhelmed with the request, but he methodically set about the task of ordering all the equipment that had been requested.

On the radio, other dispatchers could be heard in the background answering dozens of calls from the area. Sheriff's units and ambulances entered the area as a mandatory evacuation was initiated. All of the fire equipment, police cars and ambulances were going up North Fairview as residents were trying to leave. You can imagine how crowded that road was.

One engine crew radioed that they, along with two residents of a large home, were surrounded by fire. They also said that there was good brush clearance and they had plenty of water, so they weren’t too concerned.

Additional units soon arrived, and eventually more than 500 firefighters would be on the scene. Every city in Santa Barbara County and units from the U.S. Forest Service and San Luis Obispo to Long Beach were pressed into service to combat the devil consuming houses.

Then, a stroke of luck. The wind died down, and as dawn broke, all that remained was the arduous work of full containment and final extinguishment of the fire. Let’s be clear: An imminent danger would exist until the final spark had been quenched.

So, back to the funding woes of all the General Fund services that the community has grown to expect. Some services are going to have to be severely reduced and/or eliminated if local governments are to remain solvent. But which services will it be?

Current political leaders will have to decide what to do. In Lompoc, the next budget faces another million-dollar reduction to cover retirement contributions. During the last budget cycle, it took them five months to decide what to do. How long it will take this time is anyone’s guess.

In Santa Maria, the CIty Council has chosen to place a sales tax initiative on the November ballot to address the short fall. In Lompoc, the council majority has steadfastly refused to allow voters a chance to voice their opinion.

Other entities will have to make tough choices. Do they tell people they are closing parks, fire stations or eliminating police patrols? None of these choices is politically acceptable to most taxpayers, but something must give.

Unfortunately, we are living in a time when we must pay for the political mistakes of the past and the unrealistic earnings projections of the retirement fund managers who used inflated projections to keep costs low for fund members. 

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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