In a battle where the players are equivalent to the Biblical characters of David and Goliath, Herald Fire Protection District (HFPD) finds itself in a face-off with Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) over what fire officials say they need to keep the area and its residents safe from wildfires and to comply with state and federal mandates.

David and Goliath

The small, all-volunteer fire district covers more than 96 square miles of dry grassland, ranches, small neighborhoods, vineyards and farms, as well as one of SMUD’s largest energy producing facilities, and is funded solely through property taxes – roughly $700,000 per year.

SMUD is the nation’s sixth largest community-owned not-for-profit electric service company that covers roughly 900 square miles and works with an approximate $1.7 billion annual budget.

The battle

In light of recent legislation regarding wildfire mitigation, HFPD reached out to SMUD asking for necessary funding to equip the small fire department with appropriate apparatus and equipment that would be needed if a wildfire ignites within the district’s mostly dry grassland coverage area, and for changes regarding SMUD’s Rancho Seco facility.

SMUD’s answer was a resounding, “no” and claimed that, as a “political subdivision of the state”, it was unable to do so.

Not accepting that answer and concerned over what he called a lack of “local regulatory oversight concerning SMUD’s assets,” Volunteer Fire Chief James Hendricks petitioned the California Wildfire Commission on June 12.

“The Herald Fire Protection District has inadequate resources to adequately protect SMUD assets or to protect the district should SMUD assets generate a fire within the district,” Hendricks wrote. “The Herald Fire Protection District has grave concerns about its ability to protect the assets of the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District in the event of a fire incident within the district. Moreover, the district is also greatly concerned about its ability to protect members within the district should SMUD assets generate a fire within the district boundaries. The district has raised these concerns directly to SMUD personnel only to have SMUD summarily dismiss these concerns.”

According to Hendricks, where the state is putting pressure on for profit utility companies across the state, such as Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the state has exempted public utility companies, such as SMUD, from regulations.

Hendricks is further frustrated as state commissions pressure the local fire districts covering the large energy plants to comply with response times, among other things, yet do not provide the financial support by exempting SMUD from having to pay for their impact on the community.

The battlefield

In addition to the miles of electrical transmission and distribution lines, power poles, junction boxes, transformers, etc. running throughout HFPD’s responsibility area, Rancho Seco, SMUD’s inactive nuclear facility, and its largest natural gas electricity producing facility, Cosumnes Power Plant (CPP), reside on the east end of Herald fire’s jurisdiction. Rancho Seco also happens to be the only recreational facility in the area, welcoming outdoor guests, from fishermen, campers and day users year-round, inviting various emergency aid calls throughout the year, of which Herald fire volunteers are the first responders.

According to Hendricks, SMUD has a total of eight address locations in the district boundaries and has plans to expand its photovoltaic field.

The Rancho Seco facility is the largest potential fire or emergency aid threat in HFPD’s jurisdiction, however, SMUD pays no impact fees or property taxes that would help fund the small fire district.

According to Hendricks’ letter, HFPD was formed before SMUD’s existence and was “adequately” funded by the local taxpayers for the local emergencies the district typically responded to. But due to state regulations exempting government agencies from “taxation”, Herald residents are footing the bill.

“The citizens within the district are now forced to shoulder the financial responsibility concerning more complex emergencies, have no voice in the placement, construction, maintenance of SMUD’s assets and pay increased homeowner insurance rates …,” Hendricks’ letter to the Wildfire Commission said.

HFPD’s proposal

According to a letter sent to SMUD by HFPD, the fire district’s audit of the Rancho Seco facilities found many areas of concern that put local residents at risk.

“Recent tours and document audits pertaining to SMUD’s assets located within jurisdictional boundaries of the Herald Fire Protection District, revealed significant concerns that put not only both entities at considerable risk during a catastrophic event, but unfortunately, also the public at large,” the letter said.

According to the letter, concerns include minimal water infrastructure, access, egress and fire protection measures, along with deficiency of an alternate water supply in case of water distribution failure.

To solve these concerns, HFPD proposed a multi-year contract between the two entities covering thee specific areas: prevention, equipment and operations.

Herald Fire proposed a mutually agreed upon policy adoption based on California Fire Codes and Senate Bill (SB) 901, a bill passed last October addressing wildfire mitigation. This would include adoption of inspection criteria.

Fire officials asked for funding to be allocated for the purchase of two new fire apparatus, two mobile water supply apparatus (water tenders) and other specialized rescue equipment, including a rescue boat, a side-by-side four wheel drive utility terrain vehicle, and one open frame type bumper-pull tandem axle trailer.

Water tenders are invaluable considering that HFPD’s coverage area is in a rural area without the benefit of urban water mains or fire hydrants.

Herald Fire proposed that the new contract include additional funding allocated to improve all aspects of emergency response operations related to fire personnel education and training.

The proposed contract asks SMUD to allocate $3.5 million for implementation and $1 million for each subsequent year for maintenance.

“A multi-year contract will allow both the Herald Fire Protection District and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to better manage the electrical infrastructure that is critical to the state of California,” the proposal letter concludes. “The goals and key areas will provide an increase in service and a decrease in risk to not only the Sacramento Municipal Utility District but also the community at large. The Herald Fire Protection District’s improved response and management capability will result [in an] upgraded score by the Insurances Services Office. The improved score will result in a decrease in the insurance rates for the community of Herald. Notably, the results will serve as an example to all state and local regulators that a safe and reliable electrical infrastructure is obtainable.”

SMUD’s response

SMUD rejected most of Herald fire’s requests; however, they did offer some assistance. And, although SMUD recognized the fire district for its role in protecting lives and property in the Herald community, SMUD accused the fire district of “fundamentally misrepresenting” the fire and emergency readiness capabilities at Rancho Seco.

“Not only are these assets equipped with state-of-the-art safety equipment, and operated under procedures that exceed governing standards, but SMUD proudly makes Ranch Seco Lake available as a vital water resource for the fire district’s use in fighting fires within and around Herald,” SMUD’s response said.

SMUD also claimed that assets at Rancho Seco are maintained to the “highest standards with superior fire suppression and support systems.”

SMUD’s response also claims that all systems meet or exceed code requirements and that staff is fully trained regularly.

In response to the financial request, SMUD indicated that it could not “gift public funds”; however, it did ask HFPD to continue to attend periodic training and drills at SMUD facilities, “to ensure our respective personnel are well positioned to respond during an emergency.” SMUD offered to pay $10,000 a year for this service.

SMUD also agreed to provide the use of a boat and an ATV to “help facilitate emergency responses that account for the specific water and terrain features that could otherwise hamper effective aid.” These assets will be stored at Rancho Seco Park in a locked storage facility.

Ongoing fight

Hendricks plans to continue to petition state regulatory commissions to repeal the exemptions that allow SMUD to sidestep paying taxes that would help bolster the small fire district that is providing fire protection and emergency aid to the power giant and the residents in the area.

The Galt Herald will follow this developing story; check back in the following weeks for further updates.