Idyllwlld Fire Chief Norm Walker served on the Wallow Fire in Arizona during June. At the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council meeting, Tuesday, Aug. 23, he described how fuel treatments similar to forest work done on the Hill helped firefighters gain control of one the largest fires ever in Arizona. Photo by J.P. Crumrine
“The [Idyllwild Fire] department needs to succeed,” said former Chief Norm Walker, only two days after his reluctant resignation. “I don’t know where [the fire district’s commission] is going. I have had no hint about the ‘new direction.’”

After a closed session Dec. 20, to complete Walker’s performance evaluation, the commission asked Walker to resign so that they could move in a new direction. Reluctantly Walker submitted his official resignation last week effective Dec. 31.

He was disappointed that the commission did not have enough faith to believe he could lead the Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) to the desired goal. While confident that he is capable of managing the local fire department, he was cautious to avoid the appearance of egotism when listing his accomplishments.

For example, during his tenure the board approved two ambulance rate increases, which he had recommended. Then Walker also guided them through the county’s approval process for the rate increases.

Each increase was supposed to generate $30,000 annually, according to Walker’s comments at the meetings. The additional ambulance revenue was necessary, according to Walker. Nearly 80 to 85 percent of IFPD’s calls are for emergency medical services.

“This is vital service and allows residents to have more comfort living here and know if something happened, they could get to a hospital,” Walker said.

IFPD’s financial problems were created before he arrived, Walker said. He noted that the existing Memorandum of Understanding with the Idyllwild Career Firefighters Association was signed in 2008; two new engines were purchased in 2006; and the Zoll medical equipment, which former Chief Steve Kunkle ordered in 2008, all contributed to the district’s eroding reserves.

Walker is concerned that the commission will try to rectify the budget problems at the expense of the career firefighters.

“The place there is significant money is salaries and benefits,” Walker stated. “There may be some savings, but we can’t put $100,000 on their backs. It’s like a school district, the budget is mostly for staff salaries.”

Whatever the district’s final budget solution becomes, Walker believes it must include increased revenues, similar to 2011’s failed Measure G. Walker attributes the commission’s weak support as a factor in the measure’s defeat. Since he was a uniformed official, he could not take an active role in its campaign, but he was disappointed in the commission’s tepid support and Commissioner Dr. Charles “Chip” Schelly’s official opposition.

His only disagreement with the commission occurred in November when he proposed shutting down the paid-call firefighter program. Walker recommended the program be discontinued for two reasons: First the number of members had declined to four. Second, only one of the four was regularly available for calls.

The commission deferred a decision until the December meeting and then voted to continue the program. Walker hopes the commission does not plan to “replace career firefighters with paid-call firefighters.”

“There is no evidence that the paid call program is any longer viable because of the commitment of the members to their primary jobs,” he wrote in his resignation letter. He also referred to the recent article about the Hill’s changing demographics. The population cohort between 35 years and 49 years has declined. This group has historically been the source of paid-call firefighters, according to Walker.

“This town needs a professional fire department,” he said. “We need up-to-date training and equipment. Being in a fire prone environment, we need good wildland firefighters because the Forest Service isn’t staffed all night. If Idyllwild and County Fire can hold the fire until the Forest Service can get involved we’ll potentially save the town.”

Returning to the budget problems, Walker stressed that this costs money.

Walker did enjoy his time as Idyllwild chief. “While it was a challenge, I liked it.” And he knows he helped rebuild the department’s respect at the County level.

While his future plans are still somewhat uncertain, he intends to remain on the board of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council. He wants to find the path to obtaining more local funding. He also may do some teaching in the future, but said he wants to wait before making any long-term commitments.