Spring brings transformation and it will be apparent at the local U.S. Forest Service ranger district when Fire Management Officer Dan Felix retires at the end of the month and Battalion Chief Fred Espinoza steps up to replace him.
Felix is a badger, from Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, before coming to Southern California. Along the way, he had significant stops at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the Superior National Forest and then the Olympic NF. In the mid-1980s, he would start fire season in the Pacific Northwest, frequently finishing on the San Bernardino NF.
He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a major in resource management. While there he discovered fire management from one of his professors — Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen, now professor emeritus of Forest Science at Texas A&M University, an emanate forest ecologist. And at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, he recognized the value of prescribed burns, which he learned from Bonnicksen.
Also, while canoeing around the lakes in the wilderness area, he almost had a confrontation with a bull moose. Escaping this potential conflict, he confirmed “the idea that fire behavior was what I wanted to work with.” Thus, he decided to leave the northern Midwest for the new west, “anywhere with fire,” he said, thus joining the Olympic NF as a seasonal.
By 1987, he was a permanent seasonal on the SBNF, but working on the San Gorgonio Ranger District. Finally, in 1997, he was hired as captain of the Kenworthy Fire Station on the San Jacinto Ranger District. “My first job was in Garner Valley,” he said, “the most beautiful place on the mountain.”
After more than 17 years on this district and rising to district fire management officer, Felix ends his Forest Service career.
Delgado said, “Chief Felix has been a true hero for the public he serves and its citizens … It has been an honor working with Dan and I will sincerely miss him and the support that he has provided since my arrival on the district two years ago. He has left us with quite a legacy and a fire program on the San Jacinto Ranger District we are all proud of.”
“The Forest Service offers excellent sunsets,” Felix said, looking back on his more than 30 years with the agency. “I’ve basically had the opportunity to go all over this beautiful country, except the northeast.”
Felix attributes his success moving up the rungs of the Forest Service to many people. In fact, most of his happy and fun memories were about the people he worked with. “They are incredible,” he said.
For example, for nine years, he worked for Scott Wagner on the San Gorgonio district. “He was the best initial attack fireman I met; one of the best at recognizing fire behavior on the scene,” Felix said.
His interest in fire behavior eventually attracted Felix to the San Jacinto district. Felix said he came for several reasons: “First, there were more prescribed burns here. And the amazing talent and experience here.”
During his tenure at the San Jacinto Ranger District, Felix also found a new mentor — Norm Walker. Walker served as district fire manager in the mid-2000s. “He was huge influence and a new friend,” Felix said.
And Walker described Felix as, “… one of the best fire-behavior analysts we had and one of the best fuels people. The Forest Service will miss that.”
And Forest Supervisor Judy Noiron concurs: “Dan Felix retiring is a tremendous loss to the San Bernardino National Forest. His extensive background in fuels management, fire behavior and weather is second to none.”
On the San Jacinto, Felix said the attitude was simply, “Get out there and get the work done. And it wasn’t just for fires. We helped on recreation and wildlife projects.” Involvement in the entire gamut of district programs included helping with bluebird boxes, fences and more. “It was an old-school ethic,” Felix said.
Delgado also acknowledged how much Felix has served as mentor and steadfast leader, himself.
But there were times in which Felix did have to be careful and overcome fear, such as a fire near Mystic Lake. The smoke so thick, “we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “For a moment, I thought ‘What did we get ourselves into?’”
But his partner had scouted the location and said to Felix, “It’s good ahead of us.”
“We kept going and he was absolutely right,” Felix said. “Had it not been for my trust in his ability and judgment, I would have gone the wrong way.”
And when asked about the funny incidents during his career, he smiled and replied, “There’s a zillion, but they can’t go in the paper. Too many of them.”
Yet he did mention the time with a crew on the San Gorgonio who devoted a lot of time to weightlifting. So much time, they were called “The Buff Brothers and Uncle Dan.”
Not only will his Forest Service comrades miss Felix when he is gone, but fellow firefighters and officials recognized his contributions. Cal Fire’s Riverside Unit Chief John Hawkins said, “He has always been an out-front leader who cares about people, cares about public safety protection, cares about the environment, engages with community activities and is a team player among interagency organizations whether government or citizen volunteer groups … Not one bureaucratic cell exists in the body of Chief Felix.”
As he looks forward to his future, he will definitely miss the people. “When you work with a group of folks in a crew situation, you especially get to know them and it’s like family — brothers and sisters. I was fortunate to lead a bunch of folks that were really committed to doing a good job under intense circumstances,” he concluded.
He will definitely be staying in Idyllwild, with his wife Cindy. “As a wife of a firefighter, she’s pretty tough and very supportive. We’re ready to start the next chapter of our lives.”