San Luis Obispo County Fire Chief Robert Lewin of San Luis Obispo, who has been a fierce advocate for Cambria fire safety and forest health, has announced his retirement from Cal Fire and plans to join the Santa Barbara Office of Emergency Management.
Lewin’s last day will be Dec. 18, and he will start his new job as a senior manager with the Santa Barbara County agency on Jan. 4. Lewin has worked for the fire service for 37 years, with the past five years as county fire chief.
Deputy Chief Steve Reeder will be the acting fire chief until a permanent successor can be found.
Reeder has spent 30 years in the fire service and has served as deputy chief for the past two years.
“My intention is to take the good work that Chief Lewin has done and keep our projects moving forward,” Reeder said.
In July, when the Cambria Community Services District contracted for a year with Cal Fire for interim management of the Cambria Fire Department, following the retirement of previous chief Mark Miller, Lewin became the department’s interim fire chief.
A district ad hoc committee is investigating the options for in-town fire service, including having the district hire a fire chief and continue managing the department or contracting the service permanently to Cal Fire.
Locals and fire officials say they’re hoping, assuming and confident that Lewin’s successors, interim and permanent, will have the same level of commitment to solving Cambria’s fire-risk crisis and the interrelated problems in the landmark 3,200-acre, rare native stand of Monterey pines, oaks and other trees. The state and county are under declared fire-danger emergency declarations because of massive, drought-triggered die-offs of millions of trees.
Former county Supervisor Shirley Bianchi has worked closely with Lewin for years, most recently with the Cambria Fire Focus Group (which she chairs).
“I’ve known Rob Lewin probably from the time he got out of the fire academy,” she said Dec. 5.
She said of his retirement, “Rob Lewin will be sorely missed. He not only has continued the forward thinking of past county fire chiefs relative to bringing modern technologies to fire fighting, but has done so with his own unique style of graciousness.”
Mark Miller, whose decade as Cambria’s fire chief ended in mid-July, said Lewin “is a wonderful, fire-ground leader” who has good political instincts. “He interacts well and maintains good relations” with his peers, staff and governmental associates.
Miller said, “I think what will be missed most will be Rob’s collaboration around the entire county. Thanks in part to him, I believe everybody is aware of Cambria’s issues … he realized the fire problem, what the potential could be here, and he tried to keep a focus on that whole issue. It’s probably the biggest fire threat in the county, in terms of potential life loss and calamity. I don’t think anybody coming behind him will lose sight of that.”
“Rob’s been a good leader,” Miller said, “and he would have a command staff able to step in and function seamlessly” after his retirement. “All the firefighters and command staff are trained to a level where that kind of change can happen” without disruption.
Miller said he’s confident the transition period will “happen seamlessly … Cal Fire has a deep command staff … I think you’ll see another chief step up, Steve Reeder or someone else of high quality.”
Cambria Fire department firefighters, still Miller’s pride and joy, are “well trained in their area here, and they know how to fit into the system” with Cal Fire. The two services “rely on each other … I always felt if I needed something, Cal Fire would be there for us. That’s true of fire services in general.”
Lewin, 54, said it has been an honor to hold a leadership position with Cal Fire and San Luis Obispo County.
Lewin said he is looking forward to his new job.
“I want to thank the men and women of Cal Fire San Luis Obispo for their constant dedication and courage in the protection of life, property and the natural resources we all cherish,” he said.
Lewin said he was motivated to take the full-time job in Santa Barbara County out of love for emergency management. He is also looking forward to working to establish an emergency service center in northern Santa Barbara County.
“I have done a lot of emergency management up and down the state in my career,” he said.
Lewin was appointed chief of Cal Fire’s San Luis Obispo Unit on Dec. 2, 2010.
With this appointment, he also became the chief for San Luis Obispo County, the city of Pismo Beach, the Los Osos Community Services District and the Avila Beach Community Services District.
As chief, he oversees some 3,200 square miles in San Luis Obispo County and more than 600 personnel, including full-time, seasonal, inmate, California Conservation Corps, reserve and volunteer firefighters.
He also oversees 21 fire stations, two conservation camps, an air attack base and an emergency command center.