Park and county collaboration improves fire response

David Briggs
A motorcycle crash sparked a roughly three-acre fire on Limantour Road on Monday afternoon. The fire spread up a slope through coyote brush and trees while crews fought from land and air for about four hours before containing it. The motorcyclist was not seriously injured, and the blaze was small and moving slow enough that evacuations were not mandatory.  

A new cooperative agreement between the Marin County Fire Department and the National Park Service will allow the park to expand its fire engine fleet from one engine staffed four days a week to three engines staffed seven days a week. 

Particularly in the summer season, this increased coverage is crucial for public safety and quick response to blazes such as the brush fire near Limantour Beach on Monday. One of the new engines will likely go to the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

The five-year agreement, part of which the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved on Tuesday, applies to the Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Per the agreement, the park service will contribute $625,000 for fire preparedness to the county fire department, which will expand its personnel resources budget by $197,996 to increase engine staffing. 

Marin County is also contributing significant funds toward the partnership, whose second part—concerning personnel—will be reviewed and voted upon by the Board of Supervisors next Tuesday. 

The agreement formalizes a relationship that the park service and county fire department have had for 40 years, John Dell’Osso, spokesman for Point Reyes National Seashore, said. “M.C.F.D. has always responded to any incidents in the park. [This agreement will improve efficiency] from the standpoint of protection of resources, life and property,” he said

In addition to expanding the engines available to the park service, the collaboration will form a second module to work on fire prevention and fuel reduction in addition to firefighting. The partnership will also allow the park service and the county department to better coordinate around certain restrictions that apply to park land, such as using fire retardant and threatening endangered species.      

“This is a pretty unique situation and really showcases the partnership betweenfederal and local government,” Jordan Reeser, a fire management officer with the park service, said. 

National park units in Marin used to have several fire engines, an extra crew and a fire ecologist to contribute to local fire operations. At that time, the park and the county fire department had a mutual exchange in which the park could respond to some fires in the community and the county would assist with fires in the park. 

But several years ago, the federal government began to reduce resources to public parks. Budgets were slashed nationally without the authorization to cut employees, Mr. Reeser said, so “it’s been up to the local units to come up with ways to make the programs work.”

The new agreement, a result of discussions that began years ago, effectively allows the park service and the county to share resources and funds. 

“It’s about how we could do it more efficiently together rather than both of us struggling to do it separately,” county fire chief Jason Weber said. “Fire knows no boundaries and bureaucracy shouldn’t either.” 

The shared resources will also be advantageous to Chief Weber’s crews, which have struggled to fill their crews in recent years because of a decrease in the number of jail inmates. 

“Because of the early release program, we don’t have the prison population that we counted on for many years for the fire crews,” Mr. Weber explained. 

As a result, county fire now has 30 percent fewer firefighters. At times of high fire activity, resources are “critically drawn down,” Mr. Weber said.

In anticipation of the cooperative agreement, the county fire department began training four additional seasonal firefighters in June. This will reduce the dependence on the remaining inmate firefighters, who travel from Rio Vista, often in heavy afternoon traffic. 

“Staffing fires locally will allow significant benefit to the park and communities surrounding the park,” said Mr. Weber.