GARDEN VALLEY, Calif. — Trauma and tragedy surround Garden Valley firefighters as the Country Fire burns in El Dorado County. But, while the fire caused the trauma, the tragedy came when they learned their tight-knit group of firefighters would be dropping by 50% due to budget cuts.
The Country Fire brought hundreds of first responders into the area, and among the first to respond was a crew from Garden Valley Fire Protection District.
While battling the Country Fire, two firefighters skirted a deadly situation when their engine became engulfed in flames. The traumatic incident torched the engine and left two Garden Valley firefighters with relatively minor injuries.
“To be honest, that’s the best $300,000 that the fire department’s ever spent considering it saved their lives,” said Fire Chief Clive Savacool.
While those events played out in Cool, Calif., another critical moment was unfolding in Garden Valley. A tally of ballots for an assessment to keep staffing levels and services at the station failed to meet a passing threshold.
Including the impacts to services, the small department of six firefighters learned they would be losing three of their own to budget cuts.
“It’s been pretty challenging, and it’s been hard on the entire staff to have them have an overwhelming traumatic event… and then within 24 hours, have notice for three of their guys that their getting laid off. One of which was the guy that was almost killed. He gets out of the hospital and [then] he gets a pink slip,” said Savacool.
The staffing situation and the elimination of overtime from the budget mean that people in their service district will only have one firefighter on duty at certain points until the end of June in 2020.
“Dropping to one firefighter on an engine is almost unheard of,” Savacool said.
Their current setup has six firefighters with two firefighters per shift. The drop to one firefighter means the community will have to wait longer for firefighters to respond. Savacool said the firefighter will put the engine out, waiting for at least a second person to arrive, and then head out.
He's not willing to compromise his crew's safety.
“Just for example, the incident we had two days ago where two of our firefighters were burned over – had that been one firefighter they would have been killed,” Savacool said.
The current reality for Garden Valley Fire Protection District and the people they serve is longer response times, lower staffing levels, and less services.
It also means that the district can’t participate in the County’s “Move Up and Cover Plan,” which translates to eliminated station coverage from other fire agencies when major incidents happen in the area. If a situation does occur, volunteer firefighters from the district would be used.
Right now, Savacool and the district are looking toward consolidation with other fire agencies in the area to keep services going. While simple as an idea, Savacool said it’s seen "death by committee" every time they’ve tried to consolidate.
It’ll be a challenge, but Savacool says the effort has support from the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. The effort toward consolidation is also one of the reasons the firefighters are keeping their hopes up. Consolidation would mean that the three firefighters given notice would keep their jobs and keep service at a good level.
Otherwise, their crew gets reduced to three by the end of June 2020.