Forest Service fire chief in Lake Tahoe Basin retires after 38 years |

Forest Service fire chief in Lake Tahoe Basin retires after 38 years

Claire Cudahy
Forest Service fire chief Kit Bailey is retiring after 38 years of fighting wildfires — but his service to California is not over yet.
Courtesy / Lisa Herron, USFS |

After 38 years of fighting wildfires, Kit Bailey is retiring from his position as fire chief for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

“I get to retire for five days, then I’m going to work for California OES, the governor’s Office of Emergency Services. I’ll be the assistant chief here in Region 4, which is the 11 counties around Lake Tahoe,” Bailey said.

With the mandatory retirement age for federal firefighters quickly approaching, Bailey wasn’t ready to step away from the game just yet.

“I still have a lot to contribute,” said Bailey, who will now work with local firefighting agencies to provide oversight and streamline coordination.

It’s the next step in a career that has been marked with diverse contributions to firefighting across California.

Bailey first cut his teeth at the Fire Service Department of Forestry, now called CAL FIRE, when he was still a senior in high school.

“I wanted to be a game warden for fish and game, but I did this for one summer and said, ‘Well, this is pretty fun and this is good work,’ and the next thing you know it’s 38 years later,” Bailey said.

Prior to accepting his position as forest fire chief in 2002, Bailey worked as a smokejumper at the Redmond Air Center.

“That was one of the most fun, most challenging parts of my career,” Bailey said. “I remember my first jump … I was the first one out of the plane, and when I got to the ground … I said ‘I want to do that again!’”

Bailey’s time as a Type 1 Operations Chief managing a team that worked on the biggest, most complex incidents across the country — including Hurricane Sandy — is another part of his career that he won’t soon forget.

“I think we were probably one of the best teams in the nation, and I definitely think that is the thing that I am most proud of,” Bailey said.

But the move to his new position is bittersweet.

“This morning before I came to work I was out on the lake paddleboarding. I was out in the middle of the lake, and I just stopped for a second and took in the view like I do, but it was different this morning because this was my last day as a primary and direct protector of Lake Tahoe. And that was a little difficult,” said Bailey on June 30, his last day with the Forest Service.

“It’s like I’m handing the torch to someone else now, but it’s been part of who I am for 15 years. I took that very seriously.”

Steve Burns, deputy forest fire chief, is taking over as acting fire chief during the hiring process.

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