Every year, firefighters must go on a grueling hike to prove they have the fitness and stamina to hike into wildfires and cut fire lines.
At a brisk pace, Lewin, 55, led the firefighters — many decades younger than him — up Reservoir Canyon north of San Luis Obispo and then climbed the steep trail to the top of the ridge overlooking the city.
“When we got to the top, Rob turned into Yoda and started talking about the importance of public service,” Olson recalled. “He then turned around, hiked back to the bottom, dropped to the ground and did 50 pushups.”
Anecdotes like that are typical of Lewin’s storied 37-year career with Cal Fire, the last five of them as county fire chief. On Friday, Lewin retired from the fire service to take a job in Santa Maria as Santa Barbara County’s north county emergency services manager.
It gets in your blood. Once you go to your first fire, you know if it is for you or not, and it was right for me.
County/Cal Fire Chief Robert Lewin
Colleagues like Olson describe Lewin as a consummate professional and public servant.
“I’m super sad to see him go,” Olson said. “He is to his core a kind and compassionate person.”
“He’s always a straight shooter,” he said. “He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear; he tells you what you need to hear.”
Lewin said he is looking forward to his new job. It is close enough that he will be able to continue living in San Luis Obispo and commute to Santa Maria.
Additionally, San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties are very similar and face many of the same emergency threats including earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and, of course, wildfires.
He’s always a straight shooter. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear; he tells you what you need to hear.
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham
Lewin began his career as a firefighter straight out of high school as a part-time Cal Poly fireman. He worked every other night and every other weekend for $300 a month. He became a full-time state employee in 1984.
“It gets in your blood,” he said. “Once you go to your first fire, you know if it is for you or not, and it was right for me.”
During his career, Lewin has held just about every conceivable job with Cal Fire, including firefighter, battalion chief, and hand crew and dispatch supervisor. One of his most memorable experiences was the 1994 Highway 41 fire, which was the biggest, most destructive fire in the county’s history and destroyed 42 homes.
Lewin was the fire’s situation unit leader. That meant he drew up maps of the fire and predicted where it would go next so that resources could be properly deployed.
“A fire in your own county is different,” he said. “You feel incredibly responsible.”
Over the years, his leadership skills have taken him all over the state as a fire incident commander and to supervise evacuations. In 2002, he was even tapped to supervise a team dispatched to Southern California to deal with an outbreak of avian Newcastle Disease in which nearly 4 million chickens had to be euthanized.
This ability to take on large, seemingly impossible tasks is one of Cal Fire’s greatest attributes and one of the reasons Lewin stayed with the department for so long.
“Our ability to organize lets us get 1,000 firefighters on the line in 10 hours,” he said. “When we’re given a job, we say, ‘OK boss, we’ll figure out how to do it.’ ”
With the exception of a four-year stint in Riverside, Lewin has spent his entire career in San Luis Obispo County. This means he and his family have deep roots in the community.
His wife of 30 years, Marlie Schmidt, is principal at Los Ranchos Elementary School in San Luis Obispo. The couple has two grown children, Isaac and Michaela, both of whom live in San Jose.
“It’s common for people to come to work at Cal Fire and stay for 30 years,” Lewin said. “We think of ourselves as a family of families.”
During his nearly four decades as a firefighter, Lewin has seen wildfires get bigger, more intense and more complicated to fight. He attributes the greater intensity to effects of climate change, which have left thousands of dead trees and tinder dry fuels.
“We used to have a major fire once a year in the state,” he said. “Now, we typically have five of those every season.”
Firefighting has gotten more complicated because more and more people are living in rural areas of the state, which firefighters call the wildland urban interface. This means that fighting just about every fire means protecting homes and infrastructure.
“People are living in the wildland, and that’s changed our tactics,” he said. “We have better aircraft these days but still, in the end, it’s just dirty-faced firefighters slugging it out.”