Growing Pains & Money Problems




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By E T Russell   

In the past few months, really the past couple of years until the present, Big Bear Fire Chief Jeff Willis has been at the forefront of a battle in the Big Bear Valley making all efforts to bring the best of the Big Bear Fire Department, that is affordable to residents and state-of-the-art apparatus and equipment; while carrying the message of an oncoming budget crisis. Along with a valley-wide expansion, the business districts attracting more visitors, the necessary emergency services aren’t growing with the demands


The Fire Chief answers to a board of elected individuals who represent both the east end and the west of the Valley, the Big Bear Fire Authority.  To the west the board of directors are also the City of Big Bear Lake Council; while the east are representatives of Community Service District in Big Bear City, that also incorporates several surrounding communities. 


Big Bear Fire Authority 2019


Chairman Bill Jahn                                                     Fire Chief Jeff Willis

Vice Chairman John Green                                       Senior Finance Officer Kristin Mandolini

Director David Caretto                                               Assistant Chief Mike Maltby

Director Rick Herrick                                                 Authority Counsel Jeff Ferre

Director Bob Jackowski                                             Authority Counsel Joseph Sanchez

Director Karyn Oxandaboure                                 Director Larry Walsh

Director John Russo                                                Director Al Ziegler

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Top priority to all Fire Departments is the critically important response time with the appropriate emergency vehicles and adequate crew to the 9-1-1 calls.  Fire-fighting is a complicated science that continues to growth with new techniques and strategy to keep updated with demands of a growing population.  But the bottom line is trying to live on a budget that is exhausted and has been for some time.  Anyone with a growing family is very well acquainted with similar challenges.


To the public, the Chief has presented the budget problems as well as, well thought-out possible solutions and asking the public to work with him and the Big Bear Fire Authority.  The BBFA got even more specific in March 2019, with orders that Big Bear Fire Chief Jeff Willis balance the budget quickly and not withdraw from the reserve funds.  


At recent Big Bear Fire Authority meetings the subject of budget is the #1 issue and truly the only subject of discussion.  The BBFA seriously cannot offer the fire services with the increase in call volume it has for years to all the Big Bear Valley by drawing from reserves.  Fire Chief Jeff Willis has been directed that the reserves will not last another year.  Therefore, he, his staff, fire fighters and supportive individuals, have ‘walked the pavement’, knocked on doors, handed-out informational fliers, ‘walked and talked with Valley residents, explaining there has to be a change, an improvement in the budget.  At town hall meetings, service organizations, any group that would listen the Chief explained that the bottom line was change was inevitable.     


BBFA has analyzed the feasibility of forming a community facilities district within the Authority’s service area. A community facilities district is a flexible financing mechanism that would allow the Authority to distribute the costs of its services across all of those that the Authority provides services to, including the tourism and hospitality industries. Further discussion will take place at the next scheduled Big Bear Fire Authority meeting


Almost immediately when the deficit spending issue became apparent and had to come to a halt; the cutting back would begin with the closure of the Sugarloaf Fire Station#283, located on Maple Drive across the street from Bear Valley High School and Baldwin Elementary.  The matter of the closure of a very necessary fire station hit hard in the east-end of Big Bear Valley. March 23rd, residents from Sugarloaf and the surrounding communities crowded into the small Sugarloaf Fire Station bay, for the monthly  Sugarloaf Property Owners Association to get information about the potential closure.  Instead of their normal matter of business, a guest speaker and socializing with neighbors, the hot-topic was the Fire Station closure and how would the most upset property owners and neighbors get fire protection and public safety without service within a reasonable area. 


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Photos by E T Russell


Assistant Fire Chief Mike Maltby and Battlion Ryan Harold, accompanied by approximately ten Fire Fighters became the focus of the Sugarloaf Property Owners’ program.  They and others from surrounging neighborhoods came to hear if there were alternatives and solutions to closing the fire station.  Maltby and Harold fielded questions about the dilemma and explained the dire need to increase funding.  There was hope that perhaps with the absence of Chief Willis that Malby and Harold would get a more favorable group participation to solutions.  Some of those Fire Fighters live in the Sugarloaf – Big Bear City vicinity and realize the hardship that everyone is facing. 


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Photos by Janet Stevens Moore


Another Big Bear Fire Authority Workshop took place in Big Bear Lake, at the Big Bear Fire Department, Wednesday, April 17, 2019, that was attended by approximately 200 or more residents from all over Big Bear Valley. Although it was labeled a workshop it was a public hearing or town hall meeting, where Chief Willis and the Big Bear Fire Authority Board listened to ‘the people’.  A variety of complaints and suggestions, as well as some positive supportive statements were heard.


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Chief Willis gave a power-point presentation of proposed choice budgets that would allow the Fire department to maintain service to all areas, but require increase property taxes.

 After approximately three hours of patiently listening, the BBFA directors responded with very little adjustment room and the reality that definite ‘change’ has to be made.   


For more information and statements from BBFA Directors see this website:  Councilman CARETTO Comments and Mayor PUTZ Comments