In addition to a breathtaking mountain and an excellent Fire Safe Council, I am grateful for extremely competent fire professionals who make it possible for us all to live here.
We are very fortunate to have chiefs who are fine leaders. I don’t have the background to assess their abilities as a peer would, since I know them only in my role as an involved citizen in various discussions and meetings. But from my experience, the fire chiefs concerned with the Hill are all dedicated and talented professionals. I am often impressed by our local County Fuels Battalion Chief Bill Wiser, our Forest Service Division Chief Dan Felix, and our Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins.
The chief with whom I have the most dealings is Idyllwild Fire Chief Norm Walker. I knew him when he was the Forest Service Division Chief and then as a director on the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council board. I am glad to say he is still on our Board, and I am equally glad that he is now IFPD Chief.
The Idyllwild job was not an easy position to step into. Past weakness in leadership had left the department with very strained finances and poor community and agency relations. Whoever got the job was going to be dealing for some time with problems they didn’t create. So when Norm got the job last year I wasn’t sure whether to offer congratulations or condolences.
Despite this, the direction of the department has been changed for the better and I think he has done a great job. (New commissioners have played an important role as well.) For several years the department did not have a completed audit — astonishing for a public agency — but now they do. The records of accounts are now organized and easily accessible, which will improve financial decisions, and will make yearly audits from now on both routine and less costly.
A crucial task of the department is to establish and maintain successful relationships with the larger departments and agencies that surround it. If relationships with County Fire, CAL FIRE, and the Forest Service are cool, IFPD, and Idyllwild, are at greater risk. I think Chief Walker has completely changed the tone of these relationships, to the benefit of all concerned. If there is a potential problem with the County, he can call John Hawkins and work it out. The fact that he is respected and liked by fellow chiefs is hugely important for our community.
The experience of being incident commander on big fires helps develop the abilities of chiefs like Walker and Hawkins. They have had to appear on site and immediately go through all the elements of problem-solving with people from different agencies, while directing hundreds