Half a dozen years ago as I stood at the north end of El Camino Real, an old house across the street was fiercely blazing.
As a volunteer/reserve firefighter, I had arrived before the first-due engine company. A wildfire ignited first the house and then jumped El Camino Real to threaten others, rapidly consuming grass and brush with high winds driving it eastward. It wasnít the first time that a reserve firefighter had arrived before the fully staffed emergency units and not the last, unable to help until equipment and manpower began to arrive.
Itís no secret that Atascadero has a serious wildland-urban fire risk, which is kept manageable by an aggressive prevention program. Sometimes, however, itís not enough and wildfire consumes acreage and structures while on its rampage. Forgotten by the public, often enraptured by the skill and dedication of both Atascadero firefighters and the multiple agencies responding to provide mutual aid, is the high risk we incur by maintaining only minimal resources.
We have only two fire stations in Atascadero, manned (average) by three to four personnel each. When a medical call comes in, one and sometimes both stations are temporarily occupied and either off-duty personnel or mutual aid from Cal Fire is called to cover the city. Unfortunately, except for a single engine at the State Hospital, most mutual aid is at least 10 minutes away, even 15 minutes if called to the remote edges of the city, a lifetime in an emergency situation, especially with fire.
Atascadero covers 27 square miles with just two stations. By comparison, the city of San Luis Obispo, with half the area and little wildland risk, has four stations and mutual aid less than five minutes away. Without doubt, our firefighters are good, but it doesnít matter as they canít be in two places at once. Delays in response are inevitable and they occur through no fault of the firefighters. We need at least one more and probably at least two more stations, fully manned, to manage the risk. But that isnít likely to happen soon. Station 2 was built in the 1980s; the city has grown a lot since then and has fewer firefighter and reserves. It takes money, tax dollars through sales receipts, to pay the bills to man a fire station even if you could afford to build one. Thirty-plus years of ďNIMBYismĒ has crippled the local economy, with the second national financial collapse in Atascaderoís history further exacerbating recovery.
Listening to the Planning Commissionís Walmart Hearing this week proves that some never learn; protests continue against building the only store that wants to come to Atascadero. Without business/retail sales taxes, essential services are at risk. Weíre playing ďRussian roulette;Ē someday weíll pay a heavy price if things donít change.
Al Fonzi is a retired Army Lt. Colonel and career intelligence officer with more than 30 years of service. He is a self-described conservative and active in several political organizations. Fonzi first moved to Atascadero in 1972.
For the complete article see the 06-13-2012 issue.
Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 06-13-2012 paper.