Longtime Squaw Valley fire chief to retire, reflects on decades of evolution
OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Before there was 911, firefighters in Squaw Valley were mostly volunteers. There was one person in the station answering the phone, and a crew of about 20 volunteer firefighters who all lived in the valley responded to calls.
This was long before cellphones had reached the valley, so it was a siren that alerted volunteers to an emergency. Each of them also had a machine called a “plektron” plugged in at home, which was a sheet metal box about the size of a stereo receiver. The plektron would transmit radio messages from the dispatcher at the station.
“If you were not home, if you were out somewhere and you heard the siren, then you would pretty much either just figure out where the fire engine was going, like follow it, or just go to the fire station and call the guy on the radio to find out what’s going on,” said Squaw Valley Fire Department Chief Pete Bansen. “So it was really primitive.”
Bansen has seen the department evolve a great deal since he first joined in 1981, but earlier this month, he announced his plans to retire at the end of June.
“I’ve been the fire chief for 24 years, and I have some folks coming up behind me who are very capable and enthusiastic, and I think it’s time to let them have some fun,” he said.
WILLING TO CALL FOR HELP
In the early 1980s, Bansen was working as a heavy-equipment operator for Squaw Valley. He said that one day, after a large fire occurred on Granite Chief, he was talking to his co-worker who was a volunteer firefighter. That coworker convinced him to become a volunteer firefighter as well.
“At that time, when I became a volunteer, basically the whole department was volunteer,” Bansen said. “There was one paid guy, and there was one assistant fire chief who lived behind the station in a trailer with his family.”
He said back then, the department used to respond to between 70 and 80 calls a year. Last year, Squaw Valley Fire received 552.
“Now we have as many calls in a month as we used to have in a whole year,” Bansen said.
But that increase isn’t only because of the growing popularity of the region. Bansen said people are more willing to call for help now than they used to be, which could be because prior to the 1980s, there was no centralized 911 number to call.
People also now carry phones with them most of the time, which wasn’t always the case.
“I think the main thing is that in the early ‘80s, almost all of our cars were for fires or for vehicle accidents, occasionally for medical but not that many,” Bansen said, “And so the mission of the fire service has expanded a lot and people are more willing to call the fire department for a minor medical issue — it’s major to them, but in the old days, you would have just driven yourself to the hospital.”
Bansen said he didn’t think it was a bad thing, that more people are calling 911 for minor emergencies, but clarified that is partially the reason behind the increase in the number of calls the department receives.
“The other part of it is more people live here full-time now,” he said.
‘WE’RE ALL MUCH MORE INDEPENDENT’
Bansen has been fire chief for 24 years, and he said that since taking the reins of the department, he’s worked hard to bring Squaw Valley Fire up to par with neighboring fire stations and improving relationships with the community.
He said those relationships weren’t always positive, and he’s especially proud that they are now, but he also said new challenges have cropped up during his time in charge.
“What’s happened to the fire departments, and what’s happened to everyone else, is this area has become more and more affluent, and more and more an attractive, desirable place to live,” Bansen said. “So the property values have gone up a great deal, and people who work for a living, like us, have an increasingly difficult time being able to afford to live here.”
He said all of fire departments in the area are finding that their employees live somewhere else.
“I’ve had employees who’ve lived as far away as Berkeley. I’ve got an employee now who’s here today who lives in Rocklin,” Bansen said.
Back in the old days, he said, when the plektron and the siren went off, firefighters who were off duty were close enough to come in and help out when there was an emergency. Now, that’s much less likely.
“None of us have the number of employees who live close enough to come on callback that we used to have, so we’re all much more interdependent than we ever were before,” he said.
Bansen explained that adjusting to these challenges and working with other departments to move resources around in an effort to provide an adequate level of service is something he thinks all of the fire departments should be proud of.
“That level of trust and support between our peers is really important to the people who live in this area, even though most of the time they don’t recognize it,” he said. “… Some guys show up in a big loud truck, and they don’t know if they’re from Northstar or Squaw Valley or Truckee or North Tahoe — they’re just firefighters, and that’s terrific.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
As far as Bansen’s confidence in the department’s ability to protect the public from a large fire, even with more development possible for Olympic Valley, it’s complicated.
“I think the infrastructure is perfectly adequate; I think we’re just overloading it or we’re utilizing it in an inefficient manner,” he said.
He said that as a public official, he remains neutral on any proposed development, but he can understand each side of the issue.
He said the evacuation concerns are legitimate because it would be very difficult to pull off a mass exit of the basin during a time when it’s at full capacity; however, he believes the department could manage if such a scenario did occur.
“If you’ve got a building you’re trying to evacuate everyone out of, you don’t try to shove everyone down the same stairwell at once,” he said. “You try to do it a little more thoughtful and orderly, and I think the same is true in evacuating a community.”
But to be clear, Bansen said a scenario in which the basin is at full capacity and everyone is trying to leave at once is unlikely.
Amanda Rhoades is a news, environment and business reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com or 530-550-2653. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @akrhoades.