Fire Resiliency: Privatization Would Help

Written By: Tawny Tesconi, Executive Director
Published: September 13, 2021

Living in the home you grew up in is comfortable. It’s like wrapping yourself in a warm, worn blanket. Although I drive down the familiar roads slower than I did in my high school and junior college years, the houses and properties I pass are all familiar to me. Some have changed ownership, and a new family has moved into our neighborhood, while other properties have the next generation occupying the domicile. With new inhabitants, the house colors change, a new fence is built, or the pasture dwellers change from cows to goats. But even the most rambunctious home improvement doesn’t change the feel of familiarity; of unconsciously recognizing every bump in the road (and we have plenty) and having my intangible mental clock announcing how many more minutes or seconds are left in the drive home.

In the old days, I could estimate the time of day based on how far along the Muelrath dairy was with one of the two daily milkings. A quick glance and you could see if the milking barn holding corral was empty or crowded with cows waiting their turn to get milked. The twelve-hour cycle of milkings started around 2 a.m. or p.m. and took roughly 3 hours. In my young adult years, I knew I would have to arrive home and enter the house with stealth after being out on a Friday or Saturday night if the many milk barns that dotted my route home were lit up and in full swing. As I slid into bed, I would celebrate a noiseless entry into the house only to have my dad jokingly ask me after I awoke from a few hours of sleep if I made it home before Bob was done milking. “Big Brother” has nothing over a father or mother of six kids, especially when it comes to knowing all the escapades of the youngest offspring.

A few weeks ago, the bliss and security that comes from living decades on the same country road were shattered. The familiar became unfamiliar, and our neighborhood “status quo” was interrupted by a pasture fire along Todd Road near Llano or, as many remarked that day – near the Beretta Dairy. Sure, we have had fires along our country road or in adjacent pastures. There was even a period in my childhood when an arsonist started several structure fires on the property across the street, but the recent fires felt different.

Just as soon as the smoke started bellowing, friends began calling or texting to make sure all was ok at my place. “Are you safe?” they asked. My tenant texted me, wondering if she should start packing her belongings and relocating her dog. A friend who pastures his treasured horses on my property called to let me know he was hooking up his trailer to be ready to evacuate his animals.

When the fire had broken out, I didn’t panic because my past experiences with fires near home told me that things would be ok. In the “old days” the inferno would be outmatched by the Bellevue Volunteer Fire Department made up of experienced local farmers and ranchers, and there would be little fuel to feed the fire because of the grazed pasture and managed vegetation. But the outreach from concerned friends and the immediate reaction of those that live in the area made me realize that all of us in Sonoma County have a conditioned fight or flight approach to fire. It has a psychological hold on all of us, even those like me who have not suffered a loss or even been evacuated from the massive wildfires that have ravaged our county.

If you drive along Llano Road, you will see how close the fire came to structures on the Beretta Dairy. In a matter of hours, a 5th generation family farm could have been razed. And if the Beretta property with its several homes and barns would have caught fire, there would have likely been several other homesteads threatened on all sides of them.

Sadly, this blaze may not have burned to the extent it had if the County had maintained the ditches along the roadways and the Department of Fish and Wildlife would have allowed annual grazing on their property. I also find it interesting that the Santa Rosa Fire Department was called on to be the first responders. The SRFD is a capable and trained department for urban and suburban fire suppression, but why wouldn’t the Sonoma County Fire District with a station on Todd Road be the primary responders?

It is my understanding that when county leaders have been chastised for the poorly maintained, heavily vegetated ditches, the excuse has been that our County has the most miles of unincorporated roads in the state. This seemed like a plausible explanation, but as I pondered that statement, I concluded that the ditches were very well maintained a few decades ago, and I doubt there have been additional miles of roads added to the County. In fact, the reverse is likely true – as more rural land along the urban areas gets developed, those unincorporated roads become the responsibility of cities. I would also guess that the employees and the Public Works department’s budget have greatly expanded over the last 20 years.

How can we fix this? In my mind, it is simple, and the solution is something I have talked about many times in my articles. Privatization. So much of the services performed by the County’s 25+ departments could be done cheaper, more effectively, and timelier by the private sector. Using government departments to perform tasks commonly done by private enterprises does not make fiscal sense and removes any checks and balances related to the quality of workmanship. There is no separation of duties, which means no penalties are charged or sanctions imposed for a job not done well or a job not done on schedule.

Just imagine a Public Works department whose only purpose was to hire a reputable, experienced company or contractor through a competitive process to maintain the rural ditches, graze publicly owned properties, or pave the roads? I would bet that the Todd Road vegetation fire may have been kept to a few acres or may not have ignited at all. I also believe that if one of our local, highly effective paving contractors were hired to do road repair, I wouldn’t need to get my car aligned every few months!

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