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North Coast vacation spot lacks emergency access

May 4, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The start of the summer tourist season is just around the corner, but one North Coast vacation spot is facing a fifth consecutive year of long delays in emergency fire and medical service.

The town of Jenner, in Sonoma County, has a fire station but no bridge for its engine to use to get into town.

This picturesque town has been drawing Bay Area visitors for decades. Jenner is nestled at the foot of the Russian River along the Pacific Coast a stunning spot where there are sometimes more harbor seals than human residents.

Only about 125 people live there year round, but Jenner still needs emergency services for thousands of tourists who pass through. At the moment, those services take a long time to get there.

"It is problematic alright, it is," says firefighter Ken Wikle regarding Jenner's volunteer fire department and their engine. It is ready to go at a moment's notice, but there is a big problem. The bridge from the fire station into town has been condemned, so the engine cannot cross it.

"While we have a fire station here that has a fire truck, we don't have any way to take the fire truck in and out of the station in a satisfactory manner," says David Kenly, president of the Jenner Community Club.

The bridge crosses Jenner Creek, usually a pleasant stream with water so low it cannot even be seen it behind the fire house. However, five years ago, during a big storm, the creek roared over its banks.

Kenly saw it happen.

"The abutment under the entire south end of the bridge had been washed away," he says. "There was water coming over the bridge."

With the bridge no longer passable, the only way out of the station is an often-muddy road that meets Highway 1 at a blind curve.

"Some of the firemen have said they will not drive out this way. They consider it to be so dangerous, it's not worth their life," Kenly says.

Now, when there's a fire or medical emergency the engines have to come from out of town.

Kenly says, "It takes about 20 minutes, 20 to 25 minutes, for the truck to get here from up in Duncans Mills or Monte Rio."

This makes many residents very nervous.

"We just feel we are not protected to the degree we need to be protected," Mary Fish says.

In the old days, the townspeople might have spent a weekend just fixing the bridge themselves, but that is not an option now.

"We have to meet the requirements of 11 different agencies," Kenly says.

Those agencies are requiring a new, much stronger bridge, and the stream is in a protected salmon area so there are lots of environmental restrictions. It all adds up to $400,000 for a new bridge. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pay $300,000, but that still leaves another $100,000 and the fire department does not have it.

"We're like everyone else in the whole state," Wikle says. "We're watching our pennies."

The town of Jenner has raised more than $20,000 with community events and bake sales, but there is a long way to go.

"$80,000 is a lot of brownies," Fish says.

Now, the town is hoping some of the people who like to visit Jenner will be willing to help.

"We have more and more tourists, people coming here to go kayaking on the estuary, go out to the various restaurants," Kenly says.

The more people that come, the greater the risk is of an emergency. An engine recently had to get there all the way from Bodega Bay, 10 miles away, to respond to a call for help. After five years of fund raising, Jenner is badly in need of a benefactor.

"We're shovel-ready and we don't have the money," Kenly says.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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