If you get in a wreck or have a heart attack, chances are the first rescuers on the scene will arrive in a big red firetruck. And if you live in Arcata or McKinleyville, at least one of those rescuers may well have been on duty for 72 hours straight. Hopefully, they will have had a chance to catch some sleep during the shift but there are no guarantees. With 309 calls for service in July, spread out among two fire stations, that averages five calls a day — or night — per station.
In a vacuum, one might see the district's staffing level and tight budget as cause for concern. But when coupled with the city of Arcata and Cal Poly Humboldt's ambitious plans for growth and development, existing concern could easily turn to distress.
At present, there are only four firefighters on duty at any given moment working for the Arcata Fire District, which, despite its name, covers the town of McKinleyville as well as Arcata, a total of about 27,000 people. It also covers Manila and Bayside, part of a sprawling district that extends from the Indianola Cutoff north to Clam Beach, and from the peninsula east to Fieldbrook. The district has been recruiting and hopes to add two more firefighters to its staff by mid-September, making a total of 18.
Currently, the station closest to the site of your personal disaster may well be standing dark when the call for service reaches a dispatcher. With only four live bodies available at any given moment, the district has had to close one of its three stations, since it takes two firefighters to operate a firetruck. There simply are not enough trained bodies to keep all three stations open at once.
The three stations are spread out across the district's two population centers, with one in downtown Arcata, another near the Mad River Hospital and the third near the McKinleyville Shopping Center. They are closed on a rotating basis. The extra minutes needed to drive the 4 or 5 miles to a more distant location can mean the difference between a fire that can be easily contained and one that has spread to other buildings — or in the case of a heart attack, those minutes can be the difference between life and death.
To make matters even more challenging, the Arcata Fire District has mutual aid contracts with many neighboring districts, which range in size from CalFire down to small rural districts like Fieldbrook. This works to Arcata Fire District's advantage when there is a big fire within its boundaries, but it also means its crews are expected to contribute to the effort if that fire is in another community, reducing local coverage even more.
Once the district has hired its two new firefighters, it will be able to keep all three stations open — as long as nobody calls in sick.
The state of the equipment used to fight fires and perform rescues is almost as alarming as the shortage of personnel. At an Aug. 23 talk given to the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee, Assistant Chief Sean Campbell gave the grim details: A wildland engine, despite having been thoroughly vetted by a team of mechanics, blew a head gasket after only 30,000 miles. The cost of repair is estimated at $30,000.
"We have an engine that's been out of service in West Sacramento for six months that we're finally getting back," he said. "We just got the call that it's ready. Unfortunately, we have one that we're taking down to swap out with it that will likely be out of service for six months, based on all that we've experienced there."
Even the district's Chevy Impala, used for fire prevention efforts, recently blew its engine, Campbell said.
"We did actually get to a point in June where we had to borrow an engine from Blue Lake because we were out of apparatus," he added.
"The good news is we have our new engine coming in December, as scheduled, so our goal when we get that engine out of West Sac is that will give us an engine at each station but no reserves. ... We're trying to get ahead of that and we're slowly making progress, but it's one of those two-steps-forward and three-steps-backward situations. We'll just keep chipping away at it."
What really has district administrators worried, however, are plans proposed by both the city of Arcata and Cal Poly Humboldt to dramatically increase the number of residents in the area. If enacted, Arcata's Gateway Plan, which seeks to redevelop 138 acres near downtown into mostly large-scale residential development, would result in a substantial population increase over the next 20-plus years. According to Arcata Development Director David Loya, the city's population is projected to grow from roughly 19,000 today to 27,000 — a more than 40-percent increase — by 2045.
"As that growth happens in the population, tax revenues and employment base for public services will also grow," he said.
Randy Mendosa, president of the Arcata Fire District Board of Directors, has reservations.
"We are not against either project," he stated in a phone interview with the North Coast Journal. "But we do want to make sure that we can service them with adequate personnel."
The basic problem has to do with funding. The Arcata Fire District does not have access to sales taxes. It is funded through property taxes, which include the Measure F funding mechanism passed in 2020. The economic growth anticipated by Loya would result in increased sales taxes and, although some increase in property taxes is likely as developers construct new buildings, Mendosa doubts it would in any way match the district's needs.
This is especially true when it comes Cal Poly Humboldt's plans, which have the university doubling over the next seven years, bringing about 5,600 new students to campus. Because they would be state owned, any buildings constructed by Cal Poly for student housing (or anything else) do not pay property taxes to the city or county, and therefore don't contribute to the Arcata Fire Protection District's finances. In fact, if the university continues to purchase and develop off-campus Arcata property, that will shrink the district's property tax base.
Mendosa said so far university officials have not seemed to comprehend the problem, or have been unwilling to address it. In an email to the North Coast Journal, Cal Poly Humboldt spokesperson Aileen Yoo said the university provides annual financial support to the Arcata fire district and that the safety of students is the university's primary concern. She did not go into further details.
"We value our partnership with the fire district and the city of Arcata and look forward to more discussions about the importance of evolving our infrastructure to benefit the entire community," Yoo said.
The university is receiving $458 million from the state to help it make the transition from HSU to Cal Poly Humboldt but, under California law, as a special district, the fire district can't receive any of those funds, Mendosa said. The district expects to meet with Cal Poly next month.
One way to put the district on stronger financial footing might be for it to join forces with its neighbors. Humboldt County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone, who campaigned vigorously for the passage of Measure F, said in an email he has "been involved in discussions about consolidating fire services in [the] north coastal county."
Fire Chief Justin McDonald said he has had preliminary discussions with seven neighboring agencies about potential consolidations but said he does not believe the finances would pencil out.
Another worry for the fire district is that the height of new buildings may exceed the capacity of its equipment to reach the uppermost stories. The Gateway Plan, which has not yet been adopted, includes five-, six-, seven- and eight-story buildings, while the Arcata Fire Protection District no longer owns a ladder truck.
"We had a ladder truck but no time to train employees to use it," said Mendosa. "We had near-miss accidents. And the vehicle was getting very old. So we sold it."
But Mendosa said even with training, the vehicle was of limited use, since six firefighters is simply not enough bodies to fight a fire in a building of that height.
"The cost of the truck itself is the least of the expenses," he said. "The truck would cost about $1 million. It takes four trained people to operate it. That means we would have to hire another dozen people to have staffing available 24 hours a day, a cost of about $1 million per year."
McDonald said if there was a serious fire in a high-rise building, it would have to be fought from the inside, with firefighters using the stairwells. With California workplace safety standards requiring two firefighters present outside a burning building for every two inside, McDonald said such a scenario would require up to 42 firefighters — more than are currently available in all northern districts combined.
The district asked the city officials to be included in Arcata's decision-making process for the Gateway Plan. The city, said Mendosa, is unlikely to approve high-rise buildings despite their possible inclusion in the draft plan, but some in the process have been vocal about maximizing the potential of the in-fill development, which would require tall apartment buildings. Cal Poly Humboldt, meanwhile, gets to make its own decisions, answerable only to the California State University system. Yoo, however, did not think this would be a problem. She pointed to the university's plans to development the Craftsman's Mall property near campus into student housing as an example.
"The University has been and will continue to consult with the Arcata Fire Department about future planning and construction," she said. "Humboldt consulted with Arcata Fire on the schematic plans for the building, and we have a letter of conformance for this project."
Yoo added that the planned housing complex does not constitute a "high-rise" building and its total height will be less than 75 feet.
"The University was intentional to not design high-rise buildings to keep them in alignment with the size and scope of others on campus, such as our Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSS) building," Yoo continued. "Likewise, the [Craftsman Mall] complex will be built to the highest degree of fire safety standards, including full concrete and steel structures with a full sprinkler system."
Campbell is retiring in September, though he said he's not done with firefighting and plans to stay on as a volunteer. At the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee meeting, Campbell was given flowers and cards, and introduced his replacement, Chris Emmons, formerly of Humboldt Bay Fire.
A few months after Emmons steps into his role as second in command and the district's new firefighters come on board, Cal Poly Humboldt is slated to break ground at the 10.7-acre Craftsman Mall site, commencing a $125 million project to add 800 beds to its housing stock. Around the same time, the Arcata Planning Commission and City Council are expected to begin review of the Gateway Plan.
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.