Branciforte Fire Protection District's lone station is located along Branciforte Drive just north of Santa Cruz city limits.
Branciforte Fire Protection District’s lone station is located along Branciforte Drive just north of Santa Cruz city limits.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

The fate of Branciforte Fire’s lone station sits with voters this week

Ballots are due Thursday from property owners in Branciforte Fire Protection District, just north of the Santa Cruz city limits around Branciforte Drive and Granite Creek Road, for a tax that would raise an additional $1 million per year and provide enough money to double paid staff from three to six. The vote comes amid a push to consolidate Branciforte Fire into the neighboring Scotts Valley Fire Protection District.

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For years, the Branciforte Fire Protection District has struggled to stay in operation.

Financial woes mean its lone station, which is along Branciforte Drive and serves more than 1,700 residents, can afford only an interim chief and two captains as its full-time staff. A drop in volunteerism has further dwindled the force in recent years, from 41 volunteers in 2013 to nine today (the sustainability of volunteer-driven fire departments is becoming a national issue).

The station does not employ a paramedic, so responding to medical emergencies, which officials say make up more than half of its calls, requires the assistance of other, nearby stations. Sometimes, only one person is at the district’s station. When a fire breaks out in the district, that person hops into a full-sized fire truck, alone, and responds to the fire by themself; they often need to wait for help from surrounding stations.

These staffing and resource issues, and the constant need for help, are the central reasons behind the push by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) of Santa Cruz County to consolidate Branciforte Fire Protection District into Scotts Valley Fire Protection District, from which it splintered off back in 1942. LAFCO’s seven commissioners will vote Aug. 2 on whether to finalize the staff-recommended consolidation.

Before that, however, is a separate existential vote that will determine the fate of the fire district’s 73-year-old station.

Ballots have already gone out to the owners of 745 parcels throughout the 9-square-mile district surrounding Branciforte Drive and Granite Creek Road, and are due Thursday. Property owners are voting whether to support a new tax that, depending on the number of structures sitting on their parcel, will cost them anywhere between $200 and $12,000 annually.

This is a Proposition 218 election, which requires proposed new property-related taxes and fees that fund local services to be put to a vote. It also means the influence of each ballot differs depending on the value derived from the proposed benefit. In this case, ballots are weighed based on how many structures sit on a parcel. A ballot representing a parcel with multiple structures will count toward a greater share of the vote than a ballot representing a vacant piece of land.

Joe Serrano, a senior analyst for LAFCO who has led the four-year push to consolidate Branciforte Fire into Scotts Valley’s district, said he has never seen a Prop 218 election propose such a high jump in costs for landowners. He said this is because the proposed increase aims to make up for the decades that the district did not increase the tax it levies on its service area.

If parcel owners support the new tax, it will — regardless of Branciforte’s consolidation into Scotts Valley Fire District — raise an additional $1 million per year and provide enough money to double paid staff from three to six.

Branciforte Fire Protection District's lone station is located along Branciforte Drive just north of Santa Cruz city limits.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If parcel owners reject the tax, and the Scotts Valley consolidation advances as recommended, interim chief Nate Lackey said the fire station will shut down, eliminating a hyperlocal emergency response center for this heavily wooded community, characterized by tall and lush tree canopies, underbrush and steep and uneven terrain.

When a fire breaks out or someone needs a paramedic, the first trucks on the scene will arrive from Scotts Valley, Live Oak, Soquel or Santa Cruz. The change would push 82 parcels (12%) in the district outside the 5-mile radius of any fire station. (The 5-mile threshold was used by insurance companies to determine whether to cover a property, but that was before several insurance companies began rejecting new policies for Californians en masse.)

Heightening the drama, on Thursday, Branciforte Fire Protection District’s board of directors will host its regular monthly meeting, where it has invited the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s Office to manually tally the ballots in front of the public. Live and in person, the community will learn its decision and the fate of the fire station.

If residents vote to shutter the station, Serrano says the community will still have improved service if it becomes part of Scotts Valley’s service area, as understaffing has effectively crippled response time for the Branciforte station.

In 2019, Serrano’s team published a report highlighting the logistical and safety issues related to an understaffed Branciforte fire station, from one-person emergency response to not having a paramedic on staff. According to the report, Branciforte Fire Protection District fields only 200 calls per year, and most of them are medical calls. Without a paramedic staffed in the fire station, medical calls had to wait for either Scotts Valley or another nearby fire station to arrive anyway.

However, Serrano said, from a service perspective, the more (adequately staffed) fire stations, the better. “Having more fire stations is always preferable,” Serrano said.

If the new tax fails, he said Scotts Valley Fire Protection District has agreed to keep the station ready for emergency staging, or for use as a fire station again if enough funding comes through in the future to fully staff it. Otherwise, the community will continue to maintain it as a gathering place.

A trip along Branciforte Drive is a tour of signs excoriating the tax and calling for its defeat. Lackey said the opposition is loud, but he’s unsure where the vote will land. A 25-year veteran of the district, Lackey lamented the possible future.

“It’s sad — the station has been there for a long time and I think it’s an important place to residents,” Lackey told Lookout. “I know it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.”