Truckee Fire chief on retirement: ‘It’s bittersweet, to say the least’
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Truckee Fire Chief Bob Bena cracks a wide smile and laughs.
“It’s bittersweet, to say the least,” said Bena, nestled inside the red brick Truckee Fire Protection District station on Donner Pass Road.
Bena is talking about entering a new phase of his life a handful of weeks from now: retirement.
Bena, who started with the district as a volunteer in 1981, will don his TFPD uniform and badge for the final time on June 30, capping a six-year tenure as Truckee’s fire chief and a 35-year run with the district.
“I just truly love this fire department, I love this community,” Bena said. “We’re just super fortunate; we have an unbelievable staff and employees. And we have almost virtually no turnover — people come here, they like it and they stay.
“But, there comes a time when you feel in your own heart it’s time to go — and you got to follow your heart.”
Deputy Chief Bill Seline will take over as fire chief upon Bena’s retirement, per a unanimous decision by the Truckee Fire Protection District Board of Directors, said director Bob Snyder.
According to the district, two years ago the board formulated a succession plan for Seline. The board OK’d that plan and appointed Seline at its Dec. 15 meeting, the same meeting when Bena officially announced his retirement.
The vote also bumped Seline’s pay to the same as the fire chief position beginning January 2016, according to the district, representing an 18 percent raise.
According to figures published through the district by Transparent California, Bena’s base pay in 2014 was $150,108, while Seline’s was $122,898.
Chief Bena said he started thinking about retirement a year ago.
“He’s probably been one of the best assets that Truckee Fire has had,” said Snyder, who’s been with the board since 2006. “He’s a really straightforward guy — really honest and compassionate — and he’s always looking for what’s best for the district and the welfare of the community.”
Putting out fires
When Bena became Truckee Fire chief in June of 2010, the district was amid a cloud of uncertainty.
The fire board was fresh off of parting ways with then-Chief Bryce Keller after controversy swirled involving issues of town permits, ambulance positioning and alleged open meeting law violations — a Nevada County Grand Jury report eventually alleged mismanagement within the district, stating that Keller violated his contract and cultivated an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among staff.
Consequently, relationships with neighboring fire districts and agencies were strained when Bena was promoted to fire chief.
“We kind of lost trust with some people in the community,” said Seline, who’s been the deputy chief under Bena for five years. “When (Bena) took over, I think that was a challenge to get that trust back.”
However, due to Bena’s experience and affable nature, he was able to regain the community’s trust in short order, Seline said.
“Really, and I say this with a straight face, he’s one of the nicest guys in Truckee,” Seline said. “And he knows everybody and has the ability to go face-to-face with people and not be on his phone. And that kind of relationship building was what we needed to build that trust back, and I think it happened really quickly.
“All the stakeholders that were around who were concerned at the time felt really good with Bob being the chief.”
Added Snyder: “He’s got the charisma, the special ability to communicate with our allied agencies in a good positive manner, which allows the district to expand its boundaries.”
Overcoming financial crisis
On top of having to promptly mend fences, Bena was also shouldered with keeping the district above water during the economic downturn.
During that time, Bena said, the district’s loss in revenue swelled to “over a million dollars,” which equated to budget cuts of more than 20 percent.
“He always kept his budget in mind as a top priority,” Snyder said. “Now that we’re through all that (recession), the district is in a really good, healthy state. That’s one of his biggest attributes since he’s taken over as chief.”
Bena said surviving the financial crisis, and doing so without a loss of service to the community, is what he’s most proud of during his tenure as fire chief.
“That was big stuff and really set the district up for long-term success financially,” he said. “And if you’re set up for that, then usually you can get good employees and retain employees.
“That’s the best way to offer the best service. The same employees continue to get good training, good benefits, and work together and build a cohesive environment for all.”
Seline to step up
Seline — who, like Bena, started as a volunteer fireman, joining the district in 1998 — is motivated to sustain that cohesiveness once he takes over as the Truckee Fire Chief come July 1.
“One of my challenges is to continue the good efforts of Chief Bena,” said Seline, adding that his emotions regarding stepping up as chief mirror Bena’s about stepping down. “I have mixed feelings, as well. I really enjoy working for Chief Bena, he’s a great leader, he’s very supportive of his team and allows us to work toward accomplishing the mission every day.
“So there will be part of me that will miss that, and of course miss the friendship.”
Ever since Seline was promoted from captain to deputy chief five years ago, Chief Bena said he knew the district would be in good hands after he stepped down.
“From the time Bill came in here, I think we all saw that that was going to be the ultimate plan and the best thing for the district, providing a very smooth transition,” Bena said. “Bill brings nothing to the table but experience and knowledge and he’s going to be a dang good fire chief, maybe the best this place has ever had.”
Added Snyder: “As he moved up through the ranks, he just proved to be the perfect candidate for the chief position. I think he’s a great choice to fill Bobby’s shoes.”
With wildland fire being Truckee’s biggest threat, the TFPD is maintaining its mission to make the community more fire adaptive, Seline said.
So much so that early this year the district launched a Truckee Area Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which it introduced to the community in a meeting on Jan. 14. Additionally, the district has a Wildfire Preparedness Day scheduled for June 9 at the first Truckee Thursdays event downtown.
“Helping people understand how they can prepare their house for wildfire is an ongoing effort,” Seline said. “And it’s different with locals and with visitors, and that’s a unique situation we have here. We have to figure out how to communicate with the visitors that don’t come up often … how their property should look to be prepared for wildland fire, to keep their houses safe as well.”
While the wetter winter in the Tahoe-Truckee region obviously won’t hurt, Seline said it’s important residents are not lulled into a sense of safety.
“Core fuels are still dry,” he said. “We haven’t gotten the initial reports on the scientific fuel dryness, but we do know that on any windy, hot day in Truckee, a fire could start and it could burn down houses. And we’ll have always have that, whether we’re in a drought or not.
“So the challenge is communicating that threat and give people tools to be able to mitigate that threat.”