The new, two-bay fire station off state Route 79 in Julian that had become a symbol of the struggle between residents wanting to maintain the old ways and those wanting to modernize is now home to the county's professional firefighters. They moved in last week, eight months after the community voted to dissolve the region's last volunteer fire department.
Gone are the volunteers who manned the station for the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District and protected the popular tourist destination for nearly 40 years. Despite briefly locking themselves into the station last spring and refusing to leave to protest the takeover, they eventually were forced from the property after a series of legal setbacks.
Though some still hold out a sliver of hope they will one day regain the property and their oversight of the rural area, the lawsuit challenging the district's dissolution was dismissed a few weeks ago, finally freeing the county to move in.
"The court has said the dissolution was done properly and won't be set aside," Senior Deputy County Counsel Josh Heinlein said.
As of Wednesday, the San Diego County Fire Authority's firefighters/paramedics have been based out of the station on a full-time basis, just as the first big snow of the year hit the mountainous town.
After San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp issued a final ruling two weeks ago that ended a lawsuit filed by the supporters of the volunteer department, the county towed away more than a half-dozen fire trucks and other vehicles that had been sitting unused inside the station while the court processed various legal challenges.
Most of that old volunteer department's equipment will be sold for salvage, Fire Authority and local Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham said. "Some of those vehicles will cost more to repair than they are worth. Some are at the end of their lifespan. Others may be repaired and put back in service," he said.
The county also recently hauled away a load of firewood that had been stored near the station which the volunteers kept available for members of the community to pick up should they run low in the winter. This outraged a few of the supporters of the volunteers who have been very critical, especially on social media, of everything county-related since early 2018.
Mecham said because the volunteers refused to meet with the county to discuss the transition, the county didn't know why the firewood was there. Nevertheless, he said, "as a county and as Cal Fire, we do not disperse firewood to families. That's not the role of government."
The truckload of wood was taken to other fire stations that had wood-burning stoves.
Legally, it could still be a year or longer before everything connected to the transition is resolved in court. Two appeals remain and a lawsuit concerning who owns the land the volunteer station sits upon may still be forthcoming.
But injunctions and restraining orders that had kept things in limbo for much of the year no longer apply. Ever since April, the county has been providing medical and structure fire protection for the community using firefighters based in two Cal Fire stations in the area.
A brief history of how Julian got to this point:
The volunteer department was formed in the 1980s after the county disbanded a county fire department in the 1970s, leaving much of the backcountry to fend for itself. The volunteer department has been a source of pride, one of the things that bound the community together.
But in recent years the volunteer department had struggled financially. Attempts to raise property taxes to support the department failed, and staffing at times became an issue.
Following the firestorms of 2003 and 2007, the county formed a new county fire department, the Fire Authority, which contracts with Cal Fire. The Authority eventually took control of every volunteer department in the region except Julian, which stubbornly hung on to its independence.
The concept was to create a county fire department that would replace the backcountry volunteer agencies with professional firefighters and upgraded equipment.
In early 2018, after rejecting overtures from the county and being told some support the county was presently giving the volunteers would be withdrawn, the board of directors in control at that time decided to seek dissolution over the loud objections of volunteers and many of their supporters.
Eventually, the Local Agency Formation Commission decided to dissolve the department, but under rules never used before, a protest was launched. Enough signatures were gathered in the area to force a special election, which was held in March. The result: 54 percent of local voters opted for county control. After the certification of the election, on April 8, LAFCO dissolved the department even as attorney Cory Briggs told members of the commission a lawsuit was being filed that day by the volunteers and everything they were doing was illegal.
Volunteers locked themselves into the station until the last day of May. After they left, the county changed the locks. A volunteer fire truck also reappeared after having gone missing weeks earlier.
There are still those in the community very upset about what has transpired, though Mecham and others with the authority say they think those still making a fuss are limited to a vocal dozen or so.
"I think the bad feelings involved a very small number of people," Mecham said. "The people of Julian are supportive. They wave. They buy our firefighters coffee."
Chris Resnick, a Cal Fire fire apparatus engineer assigned to the Julian station, said the community has been very supportive. He said the fighters now assigned to the station are focused on service and not on any lingering controversy.
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