The Cambrian

Cambria services district OKs one-year deal with Cal Fire

After a long and occasionally contentious debate June 25, directors of Cambria’s services district approved a one-year, $228,856 contract with Cal Fire to manage the Cambria Fire Department. 

Under the contract term that began July 1, the state fire agency has assumed interim management of the Cambria Community Services District’s fire department while a newly appointed ad hoc committee reviews long-term options.

The decision came three months after a county grand jury report recommended some changes in fire protection services in the small coastal town where homes are scattered among a Monterey pine forest that’s experiencing dramatic die-off from drought and the advanced age of many of the conifers. 

The Cambria department’s fire chief/fire marshal, Mark Miller, is retiring; his last shift is expected to be July 17. The CCSD board is expected to honor him at a special meeting Tuesday, July 7, its last formal session before Miller leaves the department.

New hierarchy

Under the interim contract, Cal Fire/County Fire Chief Robert Lewin is now Cambria Fire’s official fire chief. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Eric Shalhoob is the department head. Cal Fire’s countywide staff of a dozen battalion chiefs and many other specialists and officials will back them up.

Lewin and Shalhoob are to meet with Miller today (Thursday, July 2) to firm up a transition plan that covers immediate actions, the next 30 days, 60 days and beyond, Lewin said in a phone interview June 29.

Shalhoob, 40, is a 20-year veteran in fire service who has most recently been Cal Fire’s battalion chief of training in the county. He’ll officially work a 72-hour shift each week, probably Tuesdays through Thursdays, but he said in a phone interview Tuesday, June 30, that he expects to be on duty longer than that, especially during the getting-acquainted period. 

‘A different model’

Lewin said Shalhoob will serve both as head of CCSD’s fire department and battalion chief over Cal Fire’s station in Cambria, working in partnership with Battalion Chief Phill Veneris, who has been battalion chief for the Cambria area for 15 years and will now act in that role for Cayucos and Los Osos. 

But Cal Fire operates differently than the stand-alone Cambria Fire Department, Lewin said, and “it’s a different model than Cambria’s used to. You’ve always had a fire chief, who was the go-to person for everything. Cal Fire is a large department” with many trained personnel who specialize in specific aspects of fire protection.

“Eric will be in charge of the Cambria Fire Station,” Lewin explained, handling personnel issues, scheduling, interaction with district General Manager Jerry Gruber and the board of directors, among many other tasks. “But he doesn’t have to do that alone.”

Should County Fire reassign either Shalhoob or Veneris to another incident — as happened late June 29 when Shalhoob was called to the Mesa Fire in Lompoc — another battalion chief will take over, relocating quickly to somewhere on the North Coast, Shalhoob explained June 30 from Lompoc. 

Cal Fire has 12 battalion chiefs (a title sometimes shortened to “bat chief”), with three assigned to primary response every day, plus a 24/7 duty chief with the rank of division chief or higher. Deputy Chief Steve Reeder oversees all operations and is acting chief in Chief Lewin’s absence. Assistant Chief Eric Cleveland and Administrative Officer Bill Winter will provide administrative support. 

Battalion Chief Laurie Donnelly serves as county fire marshal, making sure any structures and projects comply with fire and building codes. Tom McEwen, battalion chief and a Cal Fire peace officer, is in charge of fire law enforcement.  

Assistant Chief/Unit Forester Alan Peters — who has spent a lot of time lately in Cambria, working on heightened concerns about the Monterey pine forest and fire danger — will continue to handle forestry issues.

Shalhoob “is a chief officer who leads from the front,” Lewin said. “He’ll put on breathing apparatus, do hose lays, train and hike with his crews. He’s a chief officer who will lead by example.” 

However, according to Miller, Lewin and district Director Amanda Rice, Cambria has for many years had those services and more from Cal Fire (except the department leader services) because the entire area is considered “state responsibility area” to which Cal Fire must respond.  

The debate

The Board of Directors’ 4-1 vote June 25 was not a popular decision with the nearly 30 people in the audience who had stuck it out for a 90-minute debate at the end of a meeting that lasted almost six hours. 

Six remaining audience members spoke during public comment on the issue; all of them, including former CCSD director John Angel, former fire chief Bob Putney and 40-year Cambria resident Sonja Castellanos, said they opposed the Cal Fire option.

Putney, who served as Cambria’s fire chief for eight years, said he had nothing against Cal Fire, but its battalion chiefs move all over the county, the department is “tasked with a lot, and they’re stretched thin … when the state starts to burn, they move very quickly throughout the state.”

Putney offered, as a retired annuitant, to step back in as a short-term chief to give the department, the district, the board and the community enough time to really consider their options. 

Director Amanda Rice voted no to the Cal Fire arrangement after giving some impassioned testimony urging her peers to “take a breath,” slow down and consider other management possibilities for the town’s 138-year-old independent fire service.

Miller echoed that opinion in equally emotional testimony, urging the board to “really evaluate what they have, involve the community” in the decision about “one of the top fire departments in the state.” He said General Manager Gruber never asked for his opinion on what the best choice would be.

However, Gruber made it plain that — while he was informing the board about the Cal Fire management option he favored and that a March grand jury report had suggested — the issue was only before them because it’s an interim contract with an outside agency, an agreement they had to approve. 

In the end, Gruber said, the ultimate decision on who would manage Cambria Fire was his to make, because it was a staffing issue, and “I hope the board would never take that away from me.”

Board Vice President Muril Clift, who endorsed the contract, concluded that “I’m not willing to take away the general manager’s position on this. If you don’t like what the general manager … is bringing to you, then do away with the general manager.”

Director Jim Bahringer said “there’s a lot of fear about going with Cal Fire…” but “this is a one-year contract to get rid of that fear … an opportunity to see what this is like, to talk to other communities that did this.” He acknowledged being “conflicted” about the decision.

Lewin acknowledged later that the management shift “is a very difficult and emotional time for the community and the firefighters, and we’ll do the very best we can to ease everybody’s mind.” 

He said that, above and beyond fighting fires, providing paramedic care and responding to accidents, the fire department services that townspeople rely on most often will continue. 

“We’ll still do the same things,” including helping out at special events and perhaps hosting a few themselves, such as Shandon firefighters do on Halloween each year. 

“We install smoke detectors. A cat in a tree? Then go rescue it.” 

Lewin said his firefighters have rescued “dogs fallen off cliffs or into a septic tank, ducks out of a drainage system. It’s not unique to us. It’s what any fire department does. That’s what I expect.”