While the storms that ravaged the San Lorenzo Valley caused millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses, Zayante Fire Protection District’s Station One, located on East Zayante Road in Felton, was not spared.
The drainage area that normally functions as a small, babbling brook behind the station became clogged with debris and was transformed into a raging river that inundated the building—including the equipment bay and interior offices—with several feet of water, resulting in catastrophic damage to the floors and walls.
“The calls for assistance during the first round of storms in late December started around 2am,” said Jeff Maxwell, Assistant Fire Chief. “At daybreak, the Chief walked into the building after a call, and within minutes, water started seeping into the building under the doors. The entire property was under water, and there were six inches of flooding in the station. We haven’t seen anything like this since the storms of 1989.”
For those familiar with the large surface area of the property upon which the station sits, the entire parking lot, all the way to the helipad, was flooded.
“What separates Zayante from other departments is that, here in the Valley, we all operate off property taxes because we’re considered special districts,” Maxwell said.
Special districts, like Zayante, are a form of local government that are created by their constituents to meet specific service needs for their communities.
“Our property tax revenue is $500,000 per year; Felton’s is almost $1 million; Ben Lomond’s is $1.2 million, and Boulder Creek’s is around $1.5 million,” Maxwell said. “We have a lot more to do but need to work with less, and that requires smart thinking and innovation.”
Zayante Fire Protection District covers approximately 15 square miles; Boulder Creek covers 21 square miles, Felton manages five square miles and Ben Lomond oversees four. Since the departments function with the special district moniker, that makes them ineligible for state or federal monetary assistance.
With the department’s coffers already starting at a deficit, Maxwell and his team are forced to make tough decisions around their path toward remediation and recovery.
After the floodwaters were vacuumed from the 15,000-square-foot building, industrial fans were placed inside to help dry out the existing materials. All carpet and flooring were pulled out, and the bottom two feet of drywall throughout the building were excised, allowing for greater ventilation between rooms while preventing the water from traveling further up the walls and reducing the probability of black mold forming.
While touring the department, Maxwell gestured toward the kitchen and its commercial appliances. “All of those items will need to be removed so we can install new flooring,” he said.
The next hurdle will be to find a contractor that can take on the rebuild of the station.
“Due to the CZU Fire, contractors in the area have all the work they can handle. We’ll have to play our violin strings a little louder to get the attention of folks that can take this job on,” said Maxwell, who mentioned that while the department is down, they are unable to operate as a community center.
The overwhelming financial obstacles for the department are amplified by the zeroes in their bank account.
“Our net surplus for our budget this year is $3,200, so even if we wanted to apply for grants to cover 75% of the costs to rebuild the station, we would be looking at trying to come up with 25% of several hundreds of thousands of dollars; it’s not going to happen,” Maxwell said.
A GoFundMe campaign has been started to supplement funds for the department. The fundraiser was targeted at $10,000, said Maxwell—$5,000 to cover the insurance deductible, $1,000 for personal losses, and the rest for radios that were lost in the storms.
According to Maxwell, firefighters would be on a call, lean over to assist a person or remove debris, and their $3,200 radios would fall and get washed away or be destroyed.
“The numbers aren’t in our favor, but we have great volunteers and a lot of community spirit and support, so we’re hoping that we can begin our recovery soon,” Maxwell said.
In addition to the hardships dealt to the station and its personnel, Maxwell also lamented during the interview the lack of phone access.
“We had phone service throughout the storms, and as soon as the sun came out, we lost phone coverage at our two main stations for the past seven days,” he said.
The lack of communication and connectivity between residents and emergency services was daunting; Maxwell recalled a man who showed up at the department one night during the height of the storms—he knocked on the door and collapsed. While going through their patient assessment before the ambulance arrived, they questioned the man as to why he would drive himself to the station when he was clearly having a medical emergency and learned that the man had no cell service.
“People call our station for help with starting a generator, clearing a road or providing travel information, so it’s vital that we have a working phone,” Maxwell said.
While walking the property, an AT&T representative arrived, and within the hour the station’s phones were ringing again, sending up a chorus of thanks from the firefighters on site.
There is still much left to do to get the station back on its four corners, and although the Zayante Fire Protection District team prides itself on its humility, being humble isn’t going to fix what’s broken. The department is looking for initial funds for cleanup and restoration and is considering a few fundraisers to help get them pointed in the right direction.
To contribute to the Zayante Fire GoFundMe campaign, visit gofundme.com/f/zayante-fire-needs-station-storm-damage-recovery.