Outgoing Lake Tahoe chief talks about the future of fire prevention
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Last week, we published the first in a two-part Q-and-A with Chief Mike Brown, whose last day with the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District is March 18.
Below is the rest of the interview between Brown and the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza:
Bonanza: In 2007, the Angora Fire made national headlines. Nearly a decade later, what have we learned when it comes to proper defensible space and fire prevention?
Brown: Our most valuable asset is life … and we need to continue to do everything we can to protect life and property. That’s the mantra of the fire service: Life No. 1, property No. 2. We’re trying to get our citizens to understand that we live in an environment where we are susceptible to not only wildland fire, but earthquake, flood, atmospheric storms — we have the possibility of all that taking place.
The Angora Fire was a catalyst for proving to us that we are susceptible in the right conditions to a large loss of property. We are very fortunate we did not lose any lives, because of the amount of people who were impacted — 259 homes, 4,000 acres. The work that was done by the fire districts over there, the city (of South Lake Tahoe) and the U.S. Forest Service is commendable. They had areas where the fire moved into, but they did do good defensible space, and those structures were preserved. But there’s a large portion of that where they had not — it was something that was planned for the future, but again, we need to stay on top of this, and Angora was a perfect example of knowing your evacuation plan and being able to identify what areas need to be evacuated immediately.
I was on that fire. An hour and 45 minutes after it started, I took five engines in there, and … you know, I’ve been on several catastrophic incidents — that was close to home, because it’s right around the lake. What it did for me was it reinforced that we are doing the right thing here in Incline-Crystal Bay. … We took the footprint of the Angora Fire, and through simulations, we did it here, the same fire with the same conditions here in Incline Village — we would have lost over 4,000 homes. It’s those real life experiences that we build upon that people cannot forget. And they’re already forgetting the Angora Fire … but we’re going to continue to push out farther and farther into the wildland urban interface, and Mother Nature’s just doing its thing. So what we need to do is get people to take responsibility for what is theirs.
Bonanza: From 2009 to 2012 or so, what impacts did the Great Recession have on us, in terms of fighting fires and continuing a strong EMS system, as well as the business of running a fire district?
Brown: Well we had the impacts of that, but we also had the tax revolt at the same time, so we had a double whammy. I truly believe, though, as a fire chief that the citizens did the right thing with the tax revolt, even though we (NLTFPD) shared a large amount of money that had to be reimbursed. I feel it was best to get that clarified and taken care of so we could move forward.
And so with that we had to buckle down. We had to work together in a more efficient manner with less staff. As people retired, we didn’t bring back those positions. We looked at our upper management levels and we made a decision not to bring back some key people at the time, which was an assistant fire chief as well as a fire marshal. So with those, they had to be absorbed in the fire chief position. So, I wholeheartedly believe that salary savings helped us assist to keep our career staff and our seasonal staff that we utilize to make things happen in this community.
Our labor group actually came to the table, and we had to renegotiate our contract … and everybody took a reduction in pay as well as benefits in order for this community to see a success of their fire department. And that’s something that this fire department has never had to do in its history.
Bonanza. Now it’s 2016, and NLTFPD is readying to welcome a new chief. What advice you would give to the future leader of this district?
Brown: Well, it’s to continue to be engaged with this community. We’re here because the community allows us to be here as its public safety organization. I can’t say enough about what I have been able to learn, and also what they’ve provided me and this department throughout my career. … I gotta say, I have friendships that go for 30-plus years out of this community, and they’ll continue. I’ve had people that have taught me lessons, but I’ve also taught them, and our organization has taught them. So what I would tell anybody stepping into the leadership position that I’ve been very fortunate to have for the last 10 years, and the career that North Lake Tahoe has given me, is to continue to be engaged and forecast what this community is going to need for the future for their success and safety and wellbeing.
For me, there isn’t a minute that goes buy that I don’t worry about what’s going on up here. I haven’t been able to set one of these down (picks up his handheld radio) for, well, greater than 10 years, but as the fire chief, these go with me everywhere I go (holds up handheld radio and smartphone). I’m sure the next individual who steps into this position will be just as dedicated, and that’s what it takes is true dedication, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but it also takes a family that is willing to accept that dedication, and with that I’ve been very fortunate. My wife, my kids, my immediate family members, they understand and they get it.
Bonanza: So, what’s next for Mike Brown?
Brown: I’m going to take a little time off. I’ve always enjoyed the construction industry, I’ve always stayed active in it for many years. I’ve got a lot of construction I need to do on my own home (laughs), but actually, I’m going to be working with some consulting firms in the future. And I’ve always been very interested and very active with our legislation on the public safety side, so I’m committed to staying active there. I’ve got some programs that we’ve been working on here for quite some time, and I’m going to see those through … not only our fuels reduction issues, but also a public safety pier. It’s something that’s been long needed on the north end of the lake, and I think it’s something we potentially might see in our lifetime (laughs again).
I’m not going away, I’m not moving out of the area, I’m still going to continue to live here and be of assistance in any way I can to not only this district, but to the fire departments throughout the basin.
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