Cal Fire faces barrage of criticism for fees and inspections
“Don’t shoot the messenger.”
That’s the most appropriate phrase to describe the Cal Fire meeting held May 7 in Quincy.
Division Chief Dave Shew planned to discuss the annual Cal Fire fee as well as the Plumas County inspection program, then take questions from the audience.
His plan worked fine for a few minutes, but then it quickly became an opportunity for the public to express some pent-up anger.
“Stay off my property,” Meadow Valley resident Donna McElroy said. “We’re all fed up with fees and everything else.”
“Cal Fire is a disgrace!” shouted a man who described himself as a retired firefighter. “You’re here to tax us. I don’t like people who double tax the citizens.”
Thus it went for more than two hours. Some audience members asked questions, but the answers were often cut short by others who wanted to lash out at Shew and the other Cal Fire staff in attendance.
“As far as I’m concerned it went well,” local captain Shane Vargas said the next morning. “Now we can look at localized community meetings.”
Vargas said the May 7 meeting was an opportunity for residents to ask questions and express their frustration about the fee, but future meetings would focus on inspections.
Meetings will soon be held in Indian Valley, Sloat-Cromberg and Graeagle. Inspections will commence after Vargas and his inspectors can meet with community members.
“We selected those areas because they showed the most interest,” he said.
The majority of the approximately 100 people who attended the Quincy meeting, wanted no part of the fees or the inspections, but a handful bucked the crowd and said they welcomed the inspections.
Quincy resident Sandy Condon told Cal Fire representatives that she and her husband had cleared their property, and welcomed suggestions to make it safer. Condon said that in the event of a fire, she wanted her house to be one that firefighters would say, “We can save this house.”
The fee, which is now $152.33 annually for those who live in a state responsibility area, is for prevention, not suppression. That’s a point Shew reiterated several times during the evening.
He also reminded the audience that Cal Fire didn’t initiate the fee, the state legislature and governor did.
“I know the politicians did it, but you put your name on it,” the retired firefighter said.
“When our boss, the governor and the legislature, direct us, we don’t have the luxury to say we won’t do it,” Shew responded.
Many wanted to know what they got for their $150, which raises $75 million each year for the state.
Learning that the money would help pay for inspections didn’t impress the crowd.
“Our volunteer fire department has been doing assessments for 20 years,” one man said. “Seems like you are working very hard to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“Quincy fire does a hell of a good job,” another man said. “We’re paying extra taxes. That is illegal.”
Shew said he has heard the same comments from people all over the state. “It’s not perfect,” he said, “but we have to look at prevention.”
“We’ve cleaned up, why do we have to pay?” asked a woman in the audience. “Those who pass inspection shouldn’t have to pay the fee.”
Shew referenced the lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and said the legality of the fee would be decided in the courts. In the meantime Cal Fire had to proceed with prevention, which, in Plumas County, involves inspections.
He said that the inspectors would respect “no trespassing” signs and locked gates, but it’s for the individuals and their neighbors’ benefit to learn how to make their properties more fire safe.
Inspectors will leave behind a form that lists what needs to be done to the property and the homeowner will have three opportunities to comply before risking a fine.
Following the meeting District Attorney David Hollister said that any fines would come through his office for review and would not be sent directly from Cal Fire.