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County orders Newcastle firefighters out of station

Where firefighters will stay in meantime uncertain
By: Amber Marra,
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The county took dramatic action on Tuesday when building officials issued the Newcastle firehouse with yellow tags that pushes firefighters out of the station and left residents wondering about the district’s fire protection capabilities.

The yellow restricted-use placards were posted on multiple portions of the 90-year-old Newcastle firehouse at 9211 Cypress St. The yellow tags indicate that firefighters and staff can reenter the building to gather equipment and supplies, but the firehouse can no longer be occupied by firefighters, staff members or the public.

The placards, dated Oct. 30, were issued by the Placer County Building Services Division at 8:30 a.m. and are signed by Ken Selby, of Placer County’s Building Services Division.

In a press release issued by Placer County Tuesday morning, Chief Building Official Tim Wegner said his department could wait no longer for the Newcastle Fire Protection District Board of Directors to act on obtaining a structural analysis of the building.

“We had no choice but to take this action, because public safety is and must be our top priority,” Wegner said in the release. “We will continue to work with the district officials, and encourage them to move expeditiously to document the full extent of the damage and any necessary repairs.”

Two unsatisfactory engineering reports

The yellow tag on the Newcastle firehouse follows a final notice issued by Placer County on Sept. 5. The notice required the fire protection district to obtain the services of a licensed structural engineer to determine if the firehouse is safe or if it isn’t to recommend further action.

The final notice stems from violation letters sent to the fire protection district since May 2, 2011, alerting officials that a structural analysis needed to be completed and that firefighters were not permitted to enter the building at night. Members of the public have also been prohibited from entering the firehouse.

In the press release issued Tuesday morning, the county also notes that after temporary shoring was installed to correct damage in 2005, building permits were issued so the district could conduct the necessary repairs.

That permit expired in 2007 with the repairs incomplete.

On Tuesday, Wegner said members of the Newcastle Fire Protection District Board of Directors arranged for two structural engineers to tour the firehouse, but neither report from the engineers addressed the requirements of the building division.

“We have not received the structural analysis by an engineer licensed in California, so we thought it would be proper to notify the public and occupants of the condition of the building,” Wegner said.

The first engineer to tour the firehouse was Norman Scheel, of Normal Scheel Structural Engineers in Fair Oaks. Scheel toured the firehouse on Sept 24, for a $500 fee. The second engineer, James Oki, of James Oki Engineering in Yuba City, toured the station on Oct. 24, according to Wegner, who could not say how much Oki was paid.

Wegner said neither of the reports sent by the fire district from the licensed engineers noted the extent of the damage to the south wall of the firehouse.

Yvonne Lewis, chairperson of the fire district board of directors, said on Tuesday that “evidently, (the reports submitted) were not what (building officials) were looking for.”

David Poore, a board member, could only voice discouragement after the yellow tags were issued Tuesday.

“(The engineers) just gave a general idea of the appearance of the station, but they were not entirely specific because they were not hired to do that. That’s an expensive and time consuming job,” Poore said. “We are exceptionally disappointed in the action of Tim (Wegner) and his staff.”

Board members unclear on details of further fire protection

After the yellow tags were issued Tuesday morning, Lewis issued a written statement regarding the status of the fire protection services in Newcastle.

“Our fire department will continue to meet our firefighting and emergency medical needs as we work to resolve the challenge of properly housing our firefighters and addressing the safety hazards of the existing fire station,” Lewis said in the statement. “Our crew is still action-ready and will respond as needed to our residents.”

Lewis concludes the statement with encouraging residents to continue to call 911 in the event of an emergency and that questions should be directed to the current station at (916) 663-3323.

Lewis could not provide specifics on where the firefighters would be operating from after the building was yellow tagged Tuesday morning, stating that board members are out of town and that they must meet on the matter before any action can be taken.

She was not immediately available Tuesday evening for comment on where the firefighters would be operating out of until a temporary station is available.

Lewis noted that the equipment in the current firehouse would be moved to the warehouse next to the Harvest Ridge Charter School where the district currently stores some of its supplies.

Bob Stearns, vice president of the fire board, did not return phone messages left on Monday and Tuesday.

Stearns has been instrumental on finding an area for the temporary firehouse after the final notice was issued by Placer County in September. The property the temporary firehouse will sit on is owned by R&S Properties and is located behind Denny’s in Newcastle.

Wegner said on Tuesday that Lewis and Poore have applied for the necessary building permits to place two trailers and an enclosure for one of the fire engines on the small parcel. He said it should take “a couple of days” to issue the permits to place the three structures there and to go through a design review process with the county to ensure the structures are compatible with the nearby business complex.

Stearns said previously that placing the three structures at the small plot should cost the district an estimated $30,000, but Poore said the cost is still up in the air.

“We’re a little surprised the county would pull the trigger on us, particularly since we’re making such good progress on moving the station,” Poore said.

Challenging fire board candidates concerns magnified by yellow tag

The three candidates challenging the incumbents for spots on the Newcastle fire board were all apprehensive of the future of the fire protection district after learning of the yellow tag on the firehouse.

The Newcastle community has been divided for months over whether to keep Measure B, an annual $146.46 parcel tax on property owners that can be increased based on the square footage of a property owner’s structures. The alternative would be to pass Measure K, which would reform Measure B by reducing the $146.46 parcel tax after three years to $30 per parcel.

Measure B, which passed in a special election last March, is set to fund the construction of a new, permanent firehouse, as well as the recently approved pay increases and benefit packages for firefighters. Proponents of Measure K say after three years the district will have enough money to fund a modest firehouse and the wage increases and benefits, but those in support of Measure B say the reform measure falls short on all fronts.

Dave Ward, one of the challenging fire board candidates, voiced deep disappointment on Tuesday.

“I’ll tell you on the record, I’m laying the blame for the homelessness of our firefighters at the feet of this board that seems to be unable to take any action at all,” Ward said.

Jonita “Joni” Elder, another challenging candidate, said she, Ward, and Jim Jordan, another candidate, have offered to help the current board on multiple occasions but have been unable to do so.

“It’s like you’re trying to guess what is going on behind closed doors and they do not want to share at all,” Elder said. “We want to keep our fire protection but we don’t want to be taxed to death.”

All three candidates said they have heard anxiety from members of the community over fire protection services in the event of an emergency.

On Sept. 17, the Western Placer County Fire Chief’s Association issued a statement clarifying that under the Cooperative Fire Services Response Agreement other fire protection districts are not obligated to step in if Newcastle’s fire department cannot provide reciprocal fire protection for any reason.

Despite that reciprocal agreement, Ian Gow, president of the Western Placer County Fire Chiefs Association and Meadow Vista fire chief, was distraught to hear about the yellow tag on the Newcastle firehouse on Tuesday.

“If the people in Newcastle need help, Placer County fire agencies will help them,” Gow said.

Contact Amber Marra at amberm@golcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.