Big job at a tough time: New Cal Fire chief talks about wildfire defense challenges

Ben Lomond’s Nate Armstrong became chief of Felton-based Cal Fire’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz County Unit in November — not even quite a year since the last embers of the CZU fire had been extinguished.

Armstrong, 38, has served in many roles during his 15 years with Cal Fire, working as a firefighter, paramedic, search and rescue team member, training captain and emergency command center chief. . He started working for the fire department at age 16 in Southern California.

At 6ft 2in, he looks taller in his boots and younger than his age. It is not difficult to imagine him as a teenager addicted to the vocation. He’s amiable, telling a caller just before a recent interview that he was “puffed up” but couldn’t speak right away.

Hanging up, Armstrong slumped into the office chair closest to his desk. The walls were bare, weeks after taking over as Chief Ian Larkin, a Watsonville native who retired after 33 years of Cal Fire experience.

Nate Armstrong of Cal Fire.

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

“I haven’t moved everything in yet,” he said with a smile before patiently beginning to answer questions.

Questions don’t come easily. Destruction by fire became a priority following the CZU Lightning Complex fire that killed one person, destroyed approximately 1,500 homes and structures, and charred approximately 86,500 acres.

Then you add drought, climate change, a pandemic, and recent retirements, including Cal Fire Superintendent Thom Porter, who promoted Armstrong.

In Santa Cruz County, local non-Cal Fire departments have also seen changes, with newly appointed chiefs in several departments. Last year, Central and Aptos La Selva Fire banded together in Santa Cruz County’s Central Fire District and named John Walbridge as chief. The City of Santa Cruz Fire Department has not announced a permanent chief since Jason Hajduk announced his retirement in August. Rob Oatey is Acting Chief.

Still, Armstrong appears confident and upbeat in his high-profile role. He was deputy chief of operations during the CZU fires, so he knows that legacy, and he knows that some county residents are still reeling from its massive destruction.

Firefighters were hit hard and Cal Fire couldn’t reach some threatened neighborhoods, so strong feelings surround how the massive complex was approached.

The aftermath – including a Santa Cruz County civil grand jury report that found fault with Cal Fire and county management – highlight the tangled web of local firefighters, government and nonprofit agencies, volunteers, and others whose responsibilities overlap with those of Cal Fire.

Armstrong’s unit chief responsibilities include supervising hundreds of firefighters at 13 Santa Cruz unit stations – full-time, part-time, volunteer, seasonal and incarcerated.

Because the county contracts with Cal Fire for services, Armstrong also serves as Santa Cruz Fire County Chief. It includes five stations that are a mix of county and state personnel and/or equipment. And Armstrong is the leader of the county’s five “volunteer companies” that assist these stations. Volunteer companies are found in Davenport, Bonny Doon, South Skyline, Loma Prieta and Corralitos.

The Santa Cruz County Fire Department also includes the Office of the Fire Marshal, Fire Department Advisory Board, and Fire Department Finance.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, Armstrong also leads the Pajaro Valley Fire District, as that district contracts with Cal Fire for administrative and staffing services. (The county’s other seven independent districts are not its responsibility, aside from the collaboration.)

So there are many relationships Armstrong has to nurture. It’s a big job. At a difficult time.

Lookout took the opportunity to sit down with Armstrong recently and talk about his approach.

A firefighter walks towards a wall of smoke

The CZU Lightning Complex fire destroyed 1,500 homes and structures in Santa Cruz County.

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

People questioned many of Cal Fire’s decisions during the fire, including its responsiveness. Will Cal Fire be more proactive and will there be protocol changes with you?

First of all, Cal Fire does not have a let-it-burn philosophy. Our policy has not changed; we have the same aggressive initial attack philosophy. There were 27 fires that morning and we extinguished 22 in the first 24 hours. And there were other fires, and each was fighting its own fire. Santa Clara, North Bay, Monterey have had major fires before.

We didn’t have what we needed. People don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. We had four fires burning together. Waddell Creek? We were there. We had twice as many fires as engines.

Are there still fences to mend, between Cal Fire and residents and/or volunteers now, as a result of CZU?

It is 100% false that Cal Fire told anyone to stand down. We only ask that they enter into the global organization of Cal Fire. … We are constantly trying to recruit volunteers. Santa Cruz County volunteer firefighters receive 300 hours of formal training and then ongoing training.

It’s not so much about fixing fences as trying to provide service and get as many people involved as possible.

A lot has changed in the last 30 or 40 years, it’s a litigious society, and we know a lot more about best practices than we ever did.

Nate Armstrong of Cal Fire.

Nate Armstrong of Cal Fire.

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

How could you manage the unit differently from your predecessor?

I will be focusing on grants, working with the Fire Safe Council (of Santa Cruz County) and Firewise USA communities. Government grants are available for fire reduction, and we have been quite successful.

And the California Conservation Corps, which has done a phenomenal job [during CZU]. I hope that this year they can become full time. It’s an awesome program. CDCR (California Department of Corrections) is great too, but teams have dwindled [due to] early release programs – they went from 192 crew to 50 crew [statewide]. At Ben Lomond camp, we are reduced to two seasonal crews, 15 crew members plus a captain.

We need more staff for longer periods because the fire season is getting longer and longer and we don’t have enough staff.

We also have [new equipment]. We have an curtain air burner which was lent to us and which one of our foresters found. As part of a portable “firebox”, it filters out burning organic matter and leaves cleaner smoke. And we have a new masticator that Santa Cruz County Fire owns and Cal Fire uses. Huge, like an excavator type tractor, it can move through a forest while crunching through brush.

After the Estrada fire in October, are you considering changing the prescribed burning policy?

I don’t have the ability to change it. These burns are not done lightly. They have a 2 inch thick plan before moving forward. And so many people want to burn. It is an important program.

We have completed an internal review of the Estrada Fire and will be working on more accurate onsite monitoring and more onsite weather and drought gauges as well as increased neighbor messaging.

It’s hard to pin down an exact date… burns will happen. Once all the prep work is done and we are physically ready to perform a burn, everything usually falls into place very quickly.

Can you expand fire prevention efforts in Santa Cruz County?

We have to do fuel cuts a lot longer and more frequently, and we’re just trying to get people to take care of the fuel cut on their own property, to maintain a defensible space. Yes people were doing an hour or two every weekend, especially now in winter… summer is just around the corner. It’s time to give their properties a chance.

Are these difficult times pushing more people to retire?

The last two years have been very eventful and we have had challenges that no one expected. People are tired. But a lot of people are just at that age, reaching retirement, so I’m not sure.

I don’t know when in the last five years it would have been easy. It is extremely difficult. But we have a good team here and we have a good involvement in the community, and we will continue to contribute as much as we can.

What question would you like to answer?

People often ask, “When will you get more resources?” I urge them to go through their state legislators. We want it too!

* * *

A state senator recently met with fire chiefs from Armstrong and the San Lorenzo Valley.

In December, State Senator John Laird met with County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, Armstrong and fire district chiefs Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, Zayante and Felton.

The districts operate “on a shoestring” and rely heavily on volunteers, so it was good for them to meet Laird, said McPherson spokesman JM Brown. McPherson is co-chairman with fellow supervisor Ryan Coonerty of a new CZU committee created in response to the flash complex’s grand jury report.

The complexity of wildfire-fighting jurisdiction is evident in Felton, where the Felton Fire District Barracks is a few blocks from the Cal Fire Unit headquarters.

Generally, Cal Fire is responsible for firefighting in state areas of responsibility, or SRAs, where neighborhoods blend into the wilderness, while the district performs all other service duties. – and, with understandable enthusiasm, fights forest fires. And all of these roles can change quickly in the midst of an emergency.

But that’s largely moot in the narrow San Lorenzo Valley, where, according to Armstrong, “everyone goes for everything.”

The new leader remains optimistic in assessing the hard work he has undertaken at an incredibly difficult time.

“There’s a lot to do,” he says.

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