Hills residents upset over lack of fire protection | May 24, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 24, 2006

Hills residents upset over lack of fire protection

City Council committee opts not to open Foothills fire station for summer

by Sue Dremann

Palo Alto Hills residents are fired up over the uncertain status of Foothills Park fire station this summer.

At the Palo Alto City Council Finance Committee meeting last Tuesday, Councilman Larry Klein suggested reopening Fire Station 8 but failed to muster enough support from his colleagues, effectively keeping the station closed for the second fire season in a row.

"I thought we should revisit the issue. It is a risk-reward issue," he said.

His colleagues, meanwhile, said the arrangement is a cost-saving measure.

"If this year turns out as many days of high fire danger as last year, the city stands to save a lot of money," Vice Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said later.

The station serves 79 homes in the Palo Alto foothills. Last year, the council voted to close the station, staffing it only during "high fire-alert days" during the summer.

Since Station 8 closed, fire responders have traveled from Station 2 at Hanover and Page Mill Road or come in from the county's El Monte station at Foothill College, Fire Chief Nick Marinaro said.

Residents are concerned the hills area could experience another devastating fire similar to the Arastradero blaze that swept through the area in 1985, destroying 11 homes and two outbuildings.

"We really need that station to exist," said resident William Radcliffe, former fire chief of the Fremont Fire District in Mountain View. The neighborhood is vulnerable, compared to more urbanized areas, and it takes 10 minutes for engines to make it up to the hills, he said.

That amount of time would probably be too long to save a heart-attack victim. Meanwhile, a wildland fire would probably get out of control, though a home fire might be stoppable, he said.

"It's pretty scary," said Radcliffe, who lives on the city limits of Los Altos Hills. "The problem here is afternoon winds. They would blow a fire from Rosotti's. The only fire break is the golf course. There's no stopping it out here."

Radcliffe said he understands the dilemma Marinaro faces — "but they need the staff," he said.

The only entrance into the neighborhood is through Alexis Drive, a mile-long street that is not a through street, according to Basant Khaitan, a 16-year resident who has written to the city asking the fire station be reopened.

"It's an unwise decision. I don't know what is a higher priority for the city council than to make sure life and property are protected. . . . On a rotation, they could send some people there, so the station is equipped. What else is there that is taking money away? We are a neighborhood of 200 or so people; we don't have as much political clout as people in other parts of the city," he said.

Klein worries the hills are a disaster waiting to happen.

"We haven't had a fire in the hills above Arastradero in close to 100 years. We used to have controlled burns, but not in recent years," he said.

Reopening the station doesn't come cheap. It could top $120,000, Klein said. Last year, the city saved $76,000 by closing the station.

In years past, the station has served not only Palo Alto but Los Altos Hills as well, under a mutual aid agreement. It also received money from the Los Altos Hills County Fire District, to the tune of nearly $50,000 annually.

Last year, the station was open only five to six days, and Los Altos Hills was prorated for its share of costs — approximately $1,250, according to Marinaro. David Bergman, president of the Los Altos Hills County Fire district, said the figure was closer to $7,000.

This year, Los Altos Hills is not contracting for services with Station 8, instead electing to give the money to Santa Clara County Fire, which serves the city, Marinaro said.

Neighbors are considering their next move. There is talk of a petition drive, Palo Alto Hills Neighborhood Association President Vicky Dempsey said.

Radcliffe would like to see a volunteer fire department. Volunteers could be recruited out of fire academies and the California Department of Forestry, which has seasonal workers, he said. Cities utilizing volunteer labor have come out pretty well, he added.

Unfortunately, that proposition runs afoul of the firefighters' union, according to Marinaro.

"It's definitely a major union-labor issue with the firefighter's union," he said.

Some communities vote for special assessment districts to fund various services.

Asked if a special assessment district to fund the fire station might be a viable option, Dempsey said she hasn't heard talk of forming such a district. If costs were reasonable, it might be something the neighborhood would consider, but she is wary of such a trend, she said.

"It feels like we're enabling the government by not complaining and demanding to get what you pay for in your taxes. We should have fire coverage. It's part of what we pay for," she said.

Klein hasn't entirely given up. He and Councilman Peter Drekmeier want the city to revisit reopening the fire station. The pair intend to raise the station issue at the council's final budget meeting in June, but Klein doubts they will succeed in convincing other board members, he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.


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