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Big Sur volunteer fire department grappling with critical staffing shortage


BIG SUR (KPIX) -- Fire departments across the country face staffing shortages, and Big Sur is no exception. In this small volunteer fire department, even the chief must be hands-on.

"This is ready to go!" said Chief Matt Harris of the Big Sur Fire Brigade as he tested his team's chainsaw.

The tiny all-volunteer department answers 911 calls in some of the biggest, wide-open spaces in the west: 60 miles along Highway 1 in Monterey County and more than 100,000 acres in the rugged Los Padres National Forest.

But Harris says there's now a shortage of volunteers.

"Currently, Big Sur Fire is going through a transformation. We need to boost our numbers. We really need to just get more volunteers out on the street," Harris said.

A dozen volunteers formed the Brigade in the 1970s. The fire brigade grew to over 50 members in the 80s and 90s. But the numbers are down again to just 18 firefighters.

"Ideally, we would have double that," Harris said. "Volunteer fire fighting participation is in decline."

Harris said it is part of the nationwide shortage of firefighters. But it's most critical in an all-volunteer department.

"Our volunteer firefighters are exactly that: volunteers. They do everything that you would consider a big city fire department doing. They just don't get a paycheck," Harris said.

The character of Big Sur is changing. More affluent homeowners are buying properties, but they're often not likely candidates to join the volunteers.

"For a lot of them, this is their second home. They're here part-time and then leave the property. You see that up and down the coast. The pool of residents has shrunk, so the pool of potential firefighters has shrunk," Harris said.

The shortage comes at a critical time, with fire season now practically year-round.

Last January, the Colorado fire burned for more than a week right up to the edges of Highway 1 and one of Big Sur's most iconic landmarks, the Bixby Bridge.

"Getting someone to volunteer is like finding a needle in a haystack," said volunteer Fabian Perez.

Perez leaves his job as a Big Sur contractor to answer emergency calls.

"I want to do it because I wanted to help my community," Perez said.

That can mean responding to a fire,  a car crash, or a cliffside rescue. Perez often rappels off a helicopter to reach stranded victims. He said it feels good to save lives.

"You just know that because of you, that person can go home to their family."

The population of Big Sur is about 2000 residents, but on any given weekend or holiday, that number can swell to 10,000 people.

"I am concerned that our pool the firefighters are going to shrink so much that we will be forced to look at other options," Chief Harris said.

Next year, he's launching a recruitment drive to find at least a dozen new volunteers.

But soon, the community may have to decide for itself whether an all-volunteer fire brigade is still viable in today's world or is it a relic of a bygone era? 

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