The Coast News Group
Volunteer firefighters stand outside the fire station on Highway 79 in Julian on April 17 and keep watch. Since April 8, the volunteers have blocked county officials from entering the building as the battle for who controls firefighting and emergency services plays out in court. Photo by Carey Blakely

Firefighting operations controversy still ablaze in Julian

JULIAN — The fight over whether local volunteers or the county should manage Julian’s firefighting operations has, like any wildfire, spread in unforeseen directions.

Starting on April 8, volunteer firefighters have holed themselves up in the fire station on Highway 79, refusing to allow county officials to enter the building.

Their lawyer, controversial San Diego mayoral candidate Cory Briggs, has alleged Brown Act — or open-meeting law — violations against the previous board of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District that voted for dissolution in 2018.

Now that Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp has ruled that Brown Act violations did occur, Briggs seeks to render the original decision to dissolve, and all subsequent ones related to it, null and void.

That includes asking to invalidate the results of a March 19 special election when Julian residents voted in favor of having the county assume control of their firefighting and emergency medical services.

Attorneys for the county have argued in court filings that the judgment should be reversed because it was obtained by fraud against the court. 

While the fate of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District remains in limbo, volunteer firefighters occupy the station, refusing to leave or let county officials in. The previous board of directors voted to dissolve the volunteer department in favor of joining the county, but recent court proceedings have challenged the validity of that decision. Photo by Carey Blakely

The next hearing related to the case is scheduled for April 26.

The volunteers refuse to leave the station. The county, however, refuses to dispatch any calls to them. 

That means that during the protest and while waiting for court action, Cal Fire personnel at neighboring stations are charged with handling emergencies.

There have been reports, or some would say accusations, of fake distress calls made to Cal Fire.

Tension, confusion and a desire for a swift resolution to the standoff are on people’s minds as spring brings with it the fear of fires.

Leslie Crouch, who is in favor of keeping Julian’s fire and emergency services under local control, said she gets very passionate and upset about the situation.

Crouch said she and other concerned citizens previously talked to volunteer department personnel in the state who voted to dissolve their units. “They all warned us, ‘Don’t do it. Because once the county takes over, you’ll have no say.’ That’s just the way government is,” Crouch shared.

While she made it clear that she harbors no hostility toward Cal Fire, noting, “Their job is fighting wildfires and they’re very good at it,” Crouch thinks the local volunteers offer a superior service because they will never leave the station uncovered and they don’t get lost on the backcountry roads when responding to calls. Others in favor of local control have cited similar critiques, but the accusations have gone uncorroborated.

Julian resident Alan Marvin served on the fire board from 2011 to 2016. When the district was forced to tap its financial reserves to purchase a fire engine and experienced difficulty in securing a loan to build the new fire station, Marvin began to have serious doubts that the volunteer organization could remain solvent.

So when the county made what Marvin found to be a convincing case for Julian to join the county’s fire authority, he voted for it. It was a tie vote, which resulted in no action being taken. 

At that time, Julian was the last volunteer department remaining in San Diego County’s backcountry.

“It was obvious to me that the department was going to have financial problems in the future. Plus, I believed that the county could provide better training, better equipment and more support,” Marvin said.

Marvin also once served as a Julian volunteer firefighter. When asked what kind of vetting and training he underwent, he chuckled and said, “Well, let’s just say that I was 64 when I signed up, and they asked me very few questions.” He never took a physical exam and said his training was “the bare-basic minimum.”

The controversy has pitted townspeople against each other. When supporters of the volunteer firefighters sought to appeal the dissolution by calling a special election, some residents felt strong-armed into signing their petition.

A massage therapist, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to “instigate hate” against herself, said she was very uncomfortable when immediately prior to a massage treatment, a new client asked her to endorse the petition.

“I told her that I’d like to read more about the issue before signing my name. She said it was just to get the issue to a vote and that I could make my choice then. It was clear she was on a mission and adamant about the cause. It was like sign now and think later,” the massage therapist recalled.

Not wanting to incite an argument, she signed the petition but felt frustrated about it. 

The client never returned for a second treatment. Supporters needed 605 signatures and received 626. Ultimately, 54% of voters opted for county services.  

Michael Hart, editor of The Julian News, asked in a recent article how the community could be so divided and answered: “passion, on both sides.”

But as Marvin pointed out, while for some residents the passions run deep, others don’t have time or interest. In an emergency, “Most people want to just pick up the phone, dial 9-1-1 and trust that they’ll get help,” Marvin said.