Union Editorial: On Measure R, we were penny-wise and house-foolish

Just another day at the office as Arcata Fire saves a $3 million building. Arcata Fire video image

When firefighters are called to respond to a burning building, a delay of minutes could be the difference between minor damage and total destruction. On a medical emergency call, a delay of minutes could be the difference between life and death.

The difference that a few minutes can make was witnessed last week, when the Arcata Fire District was dispatched to a commercial vehicle engulfed in flames next to the Angels of Hope thrift store building, which had also caught fire.

Firefighters arrived on scene within three minutes and doused the fire, saving a building valued at nearly $3 million. The building contains eight businesses, which were spared from devastation.

Had the fire occurred hours later, the fire district’s response would have surely been slowed by at least a few minutes. Why? Because at the time of the call, the district was one hour away from closing the nearest station in downtown Arcata as part of its rolling brownouts.

That would have meant that the crew would have had to come from the Mad River Station out on Janes Road, far across Arcata. 

Watching the video of the rapidly intensifying fire, it’s not hard to see how much more damage would have been done even after a few more minutes.

Now imagine that it’s someone’s house, with their family inside. Or that, as often happens, Arcata Fire’s newly reduced forces are already occupied on another call. 

It’s not a matter of if that will happen, only when. In 2019, AFD answered 3,860 calls for service – more than 10 per day. Arcata Fire regularly saves homes; votes against Measure R kneecapped their ability to continue to do so.

No wonder AFD Battalion Chief Sean Campbell likened the situation to gambling:

“In my opinion, we’re essentially rolling the dice for the community,” Campbell said May 27, the day of the fire. “Today we rolled the dice and got lucky.”

Luck isn’t sufficient to ensure  the safety of our homes, businesses and lives. We need to properly staff our fire district so it can keep all three stations open 24/7.

The Arcata Fire District needs to take another stab at a ballot measure this November. In the March 3 election, a majority of voters came out in support of the measure, but it fell short of the two-thirds approval it needed.

The election results revealed some interesting geographical differences. While Arcata voters overwhelmingly supported the measure, support was significantly less in McKinleyville, Manila and Bayside.

It’s possible that some voters are confused and think that the Arcata Fire District is just Arcata’s fire department, due to its name. But it’s not. AFD is McKinleyville’s fire department. AFD in Bayside’s fire department. AFD is Manila’s fire department.

AFD does not get money from the City of Arcata’s government. They are separate entities.

If the district decides to pursue another ballot measure – which we encourage –  firefighters and their supporters are going to have to work overtime to counter misinformation and to convince two-thirds of voters that having all three open is in their best interest.


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