July 28, 2014
Final Reports
San Mateo Courts - Civil Grand Jury 1998 Final Report: Half Moon Bay - Point Montara Fire Protection Districts
Background | Findings | Comment | Recommendations
Background:

The Half Moon Bay (HMB) Fire Protection District provides service to Half Moon Bay, Miramar, Princeton, El Granada and Martin Beach. The District's Board recently signed a contract with the Point Montara Fire Protection District Board to fully administer and operationally manage its district, which covers Montara and Moss Beach. The HMB Fire Chief has administrative and operational responsibility for both fire protection districts. The combined districts cover approximately 47 square miles.

On January 17, 1998, the San Mateo County 1998 Grand Jury received a letter complaining about HMB Fire Protection District:

  • When the Conservatory (now the Beach House) was burned while under construction, the fire team's response time was slow.
  • Debris from the Conservatory fire was hauled to the dump one day before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) turned over control of the site to insurance investigators. The debris was accepted at the dump on a Sunday, even though the dump had never before been open on Sundays.
  • A 1997 brush fire in the El Granada hills was seemingly suspicious because it essentially cleared an area, part of which was planned for development.
  • The HMB Fire Chief contracted with a company to clear a wetland area in Half Moon Bay targeted for development.
  • The HMB Fire Chief permits development of homes in one area while preventing development in similar areas.
  • A lack of fire inspection and safety drills contributed to a destructive fire in Bloom Lane senior housing.
  • The two fire districts, for which the HMB Fire Chief is responsible, should be combined.
Findings:

At the time of the fire, the Conservatory was an open frame structure without sprinkler or alarm systems. The Fire Incident Report indicates a response time of five minutes, and adequate waters and water pressure at the site. However, because the structure was under construction and well ventilated, by the time firemen arrived on the scene the fire had already spread too far to save the open frame building.

Once the HMB Fire Department and ATF had completed their investigation and taken samples of the debris, the property was released back to the owner, who was allowed to start demolition and clean-up activities. The dump was opened on a Sunday by the dump owner as an accommodation to the property owner. Insurance investigators never have control of a fire scene. They receive a Fire Cause Analysis from the ATF after the cause of fire had been determined.

As reported in the Fire Cause Analysis, the cause of the brush fire in the hills of El Granada could not be determined. Facts do not exist to support "suspicious" cause.

Weed overgrowth constitutes a fire hazard, whether on private or public land. The Weed and Rubbish Abatement Program of the HMB Fire Department was formulated on July 28, 1997. Weed abatement of wetland areas is covered under Section II "Special Conditions," of the program plan. Implementation began on March 2, 1998, when sealed bids were received from contractors. The successful contractor was issued a permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, which permits abatement by means of mowing only. Rather than mowing, the contractor mistakenly used the discing process.

The HMB Fire Department does not issue permits for the construction of housing or commercial structures. Permits are issued by either the city or county planning departments. The fire protection section of the planning permit process requires an Environmental Impact Report. If a building project fails to satisfy the requirement, no permit is issued. Additionally, the HMB Fire Department may not issue a Certificate of Occupancy for any building structure unless there is sufficient water at the correct pressure to fight a potential fire.

The Fire Prevention Bureau of the HMB Fire Department and its Fire Marshall conduct inspections and fire drills as provided for by Section 103.3 of the HMB Fire Department's Uniform Fire Code. Bloom Lane was inspected by the Fire Marshall prior to its opening. Subsequent fire drills are the responsibility of the Bloom Lane manager. If the manager needs assistance in implementing a fire drill routine, a request for this service should be submitted to the fire department.

The decision to combine districts cannot be made unilaterally by the HMB Fire Protection District. However, there has been discussion between the HMB and Point Montara Fire Protection boards concerning a merger. During the preparation of this report, the districts merged operations, but continued to function with separate boards. The expected economies have not been fully reached because the boards have not been merged. In order to accomplish the merger in its entirety, the property owners should be polled and the results submitted to the county's Local Area Formation Commission. Whether the merger requires the approval of the voters of the two districts has not been determined at this time.

Comment:

The Grand Jury's investigation determined the complaints in the January 17, 1998, letter are without substance and the HMB Fire Protection District should be so advised.

Recommendations:
Recommendation 53: The Board of Directors of the Half Moon Bay Fire Protection District should ensure firms contracting to perform weed abatement fully understand what constitutes permissible practices and their performance is closely monitored.
Recommendation 54: The Board of Directors of the Half Moon Bay Fire Protection District should clearly state, as a matter of public understanding, its response time objectives; one objective for defined urban areas and one for rural areas.
Recommendation 55: The Boards of Directors of the Half Moon Bay Fire Protection District and the Point Montara Fire Protection District should begin a process that will fully merge both districts which would maximize cost savings.

 

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