Volunteer Fire Captain Michael Simpson's blue and white house is built into a canyon, somewhat behind and above what passes for the heart of Harbison Canyon, a village of fewer than 4,000 people in East County just west of Alpine. In the late afternoon, hardly a sound breaks the silence of the arid countryside, apart from the crunch of occasional car driving on a nearby dirt road. A wooden statue of a golden eagle on a pillar would be the most prominent feature of Simpson's front yard if not for a massive green fire engine parked in the driveway.
This was not a special occasion. Simpson has the truck because his house doubles as the Harbison Canyon fire station. Rural San Diego County relies on a network of volunteers who devote their spare time to responding to public-safety emergencies, from medical problems to raging blazes. East County is divided into districts, each of which gets its own fire station. Well, except for Harbison Canyon, whose station burned in the Cedar fire of 2003. The battalion commander for the area, David Nissen, told CityBeat that they had to wait two years to get the insurance settlement, and various pieces of property have proven inadequate for the fire station's needs. For Simpson and his firefighting girlfriend, Julie Rozell, the foot dragging on the part of the county and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is typical treatment for the sparsely settled region. In the meantime, Simpson almost single-handedly keeps Station 76 running.
He says he responds to around 90 percent of the calls solo. What happened to all his colleagues? The fire station served as more than a place to keep equipment and base emergency response. As a kind of social center for the volunteers, it became a place to watch TV, play cards and hang out with fellow comrades-of-the-hose.
'When I used to drive to the station, I'd have help already there,' Simpson said.
But when the fire station transferred to his home, the frat-house charm disappeared. Simpson tried to get the guys to hang out in his living room like they used to at the fire station.
'It's cool to hang out at a fire station,' he said. 'But it's not cool to stay at the captain's house.'
So they spend their leisure time at home in El Cajon or Alpine or any of the other disparate places the volunteers live. Now, when a call comes in, Simpson is often the first and last to his truck, unless Rozell is home to help out.
The station used to have a second, smaller fire truck that late-arriving volunteers could take to a scene after the first truck had left. But the Cedar fire wrecked it, too, and the state won't replace it as long as there's no station to house it. These days, far-flung volunteers either catch the truck at Simpson's house, or they don't go.
'They get here and the truck is gone,' Simpson said. 'They don't want to drive their personal vehicles to the scene, so they go home. Now they're getting frustrated; they're showing up less and less.'
Rozell can't go out without him, either, since she doesn't have an operator's license.
'Sometimes I have to watch a Sycuan truck drive past my house, because Mike is at work and I can't drive,' she said.
And that green truck? Not so green anymore. Three years in the sun have faded it to the yellowish color of early-summer grass. The county built an open shelter, a peaked roof with no walls, next to the house to provide a modicum of protection from the elements. Local firefighters, used to holding bake sales to purchase basic equipment like boots and axes, bought a tarp to protect the hoses, which must be stored on the truck in the open air. By now the tarp itself is breaking down, and Simpson showed CityBeat the dry hoses. They're still functional but in danger of busting if they can't be replaced or stored properly.
Nissen said the state is negotiating to purchase a piece of property at Harbison Canyon and St. George's roads, though that is just the latest of several proposals on the table. After it determined that the site of the old fire station was too small, the district bought a plot of land from the county for $150,000 in 2005, relying heavily on a $100,000 donation from the Sycuan Indian tribe. But when a geological survey indicated the property wouldn't serve their needs, the county balked at returning the money, and negotiations are ongoing. The latest offer on the new plot is $400,000. Nissen said plans are in the works to build a 2,500-square-foot facility at an additional cost of about $375,000. The insurance settlement of $985,000 would cover all these expenses and leave the Sycuan donation to buy axes for the firefighters. But, Nissen said, even if the land was bought tomorrow, the station wouldn't be ready to go until February. That's well after the current fire season is over, a season, which, thanks to a dry winter, fire experts predict could be the worst in years.
'It's hurt our community, not having a station.' Rozell said. 'We're not responding as fast or as often, and we're spinning our wheels to keep this thing alive. It's embarrassing.'