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Residents oppose decision to close three Butte County fire stations for the winter 

Station 62 in Berry Creek temporarily closed beginning Dec. 19. The station posted a Cal Fire press release regarding the closure on the front gate.
Jamine Jiang
Station 62 in Berry Creek temporarily closed beginning Dec. 19. The station posted a Cal Fire press release regarding the closure on the front gate.

Katherine Willis moved to Berry Creek this year, in part, to be closer to emergency services for her disabled husband.

“Last month, we were in Arizona, and he fell off the bed. It took me two hours to pick him up,” she said. “Our nearest fire department was five miles away. But it's volunteer. And there's not usually people there.”

Willis said she thought her husband could get help faster in Berry Creek if something like that happened again. Her son was close by, and if not him, she could rely on the firefighters at Fire Station 62, just a half a mile away from her house.

She could, that is, until the county closed Station 62 for the winter.

In December, the Butte County Board of Supervisors voted to reduce a contract with Cal Fire by about $700,000, temporarily closing a partnership at three stations called the Amador Program. That program meant Cal Fire firefighters staffed Butte County stations during the winter season. As of Dec. 19, those three stations closed for the next four months.

Stations affected are Harts Mill Fire Station 62 in Berry Creek, Stirling City Fire Station 13, and Jarbo Gap Fire Station 36.

Berry Creek resident Nicole Navarro lost her home in the Bear Fire, also known as the North Complex, in 2020. The fire killed 16 people and injured more than 100. Navarro said if she’d known the fire station would close for a third of the year, she might not have rebuilt in Berry Creek.

“Had we known this was coming at us, I can guarantee you there [were] a lot of people that wouldn't have moved back up here to rebuild.”

The closure of the fire station may present another problem for Berry Creek’s largely fire survivor community: skyrocketing insurance premiums.

The office at station 62 in Berry Creek.
Jamie Jiang
The office at Station 62 in Berry Creek.

Navarro said she paid $1,800 a year before the Bear Fire for homeowners’ insurance. In the wake of the fire, she’s now paying more than double, coming out to over $4,000 a year.

“And that’s with the fire station here,” Navarro said.

Navarro said her premiums were already set to increase to $5,000 a year before the fire station closed. Another increase could make insurance entirely unaffordable.

Berry Creek resident Steve Sheldon said he worries that the fire station closure could put him out of a home. If his insurer decides to withdraw, he says his mortgage could get canceled.

“When I lose my house, that’s a different story,” Sheldon said.

Michael Barry, chief communications officer at the Insurance Information Institute, told NSPR fire station closures are one of many variables that insurance risk managers use to determine premium rates, making it difficult to predict the fallout of the temporary closure. However, Barry said, it is possible that seasonal station closures would affect insurance rates less drastically than year-long closures.

Andy Pickett, the chief administrative officer and clerk of the Board of Supervisors, said the closures were part of a larger group of budget actions so the county could afford salaries more competitive with private employers and other counties.

Pickett said the decision to close stations in these three areas was made based on a 2017 study that showed any needed budget reductions should begin with temporarily closing these three stations.

“We're not talking about making a decision that is easy. We're talking about making the least harmful decision,” he said.

Pickett said the stations will still be staffed by Cal Fire during peak fire season as they have been every year.

Berry Creek resident Katherine Willis said fire stations aren’t only useful during fire season.

“You don't take fire stations away from people. That's a lifeline right there. They not only fight fires, they help save lives.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 71% of fire department calls nationwide in 2021 were for medical aid and 4% were for fires. Berry Creek may well have more medical needs than other communities. According to the 2021 census, the average age in Berry Creek is 57 years. Residents say many in the area, like Willis’ husband, are disabled.

During the seasonal closure, calls to Berry Creek will be answered by a station in Oroville around 18 miles away. According to the Butte County Fire Department, that lengthens response times to as much as twenty minutes.

Some Berry Creek residents say they didn’t receive warning about the Board of Supervisors’ proposal to close the stations and that the meeting during which the board voted on the issue was not well advertised.

Berry Creek resident Neil Meyer said the county made it difficult for residents to know the closure of station 62 was going up for a vote in December.

Meyer said he thinks the Board of Supervisors violated the Brown Act, a transparency law that says local governments must provide a “prominent, direct link” to meeting agendas. Pickett said there is a broken link on the front page, but that other links pointing to the correct agenda are available on the website.

Pickett said the county conducted a review due to the concerns and found it did not rise to the level of a Brown Act violation because other links on the website directed to the correct agenda.

“We've had … independent reviews of it, because that is something that we take very seriously. And independent reviews, including our own internal review and our vendor, Granicus, who does the agenda posting, they've all confirmed that it was posted on time, and it was available, and it was reachable through different means,” Pickett said.

Berry Creek's Station 62 closed last winter.
Jamie Jiang
Berry Creek’s Station 62 closed for the winter in December.

The board received 23 electronic public comments regarding the budget item, though they were not read aloud. Eighteen comments presented arguments against closing fire stations in Butte County.

Meyer wants the board to reconsider its decision to close the station until the community has had sufficient time to give their input on the issue.

In the meantime, some Berry Creek community members are collecting comments and signatures to request the board reconsider the fire station closure. As of Jan. 17, the community’s online petition has received 118 signatures.

Jamie is NSPR’s wildfire reporter and Report For America corps member. She covers all things fire, but her main focus is wildfire recovery in the North State. Before NSPR, Jamie was at UCLA, where she dabbled in college radio and briefly worked as podcast editor at the Daily Bruin.