Freddie Espinoza, San Jacinto Ranger District fire management officer. Photo by J.P. Crumrine
Freddie Espinoza, San Jacinto Ranger District fire management officer.
Photo by J.P. Crumrine

The echelon of U.S. Forest Service fire managers is filled with overly qualified and dedicated individuals. They have trained for years and been educated on fire behavior and firefighting tactics.

It takes years to move up the ladder because of their love for the job. Few willfully leave, except for another fire position or upon reaching 57, retirement age.

At the end of April, Dan Felix retired as the San Jacinto Ranger District fire officer. His replacement, Freddie Espinoza, not only meets and exceeds all of the technical requirements for the position, but brings one more, perhaps the most important.

Espinoza grew up on the Hill. He knows it and its residents. Recruited by well-known Forest Service Hot Shot leader Kirby More more than 20 years ago, Espinoza has spent the vast majority of his career defending the Hill.

“I’m always concerned about fire. Some seasons we’re ready for big-time fires, but there’s no starts,” he said. “Other summers, it’s really slow but windy at the end. We just have to be prepared.”

Being prepared and adaptable seems to define Espinoza. After a month in the new position, he claims that nothing has surprised him.

“Freddie brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this key leadership position in the fire organization on the San Bernardino National Forest. He is a strong, thoughtful and proven leader who has earned the trust and respect of his troops, peers and leaders at all levels of the organization,” wrote Arturo Delgado, the district ranger. “Freddie has a proven track record of building and maintaining collaborative and cooperative relationships with our partners, stakeholders and the community.”

Firefighting was not his dream. While working in construction after high school, he was invited to join an Idyllwild bowling league that played at the former Ramona Lanes in Hemet. During those competitions, where he met Art Torrez and Larry Smith, both Forest Service firefighters and Hot Shots, More encouraged Espinoza to join his Hot Shots cadre.

Although he was accepted in 1988, he deferred his fire career a year. His training began on his first day. While he was being issued his gear, a fire started below Idyllwild Arts. The crews jumped in trucks and headed out to stop it. Midway through his first day, Espinoza was shoveling firebreaks and in the midst of a 40-acre fire.

“I didn’t understand what Kirby was telling me,” Espinoza said smiling. “I had my first lesson on the first day. Now, you can’t respond with brand new people.” In fact, this appears to be standard for him. On his first day as district fire chief, the small Cranston 2 fire ignited near Bee Canyon.

Except for a tour on the Mountain Top District, Espinoza’s career has been on the Hill. He returned to the Hill in 2001 as the captain of the Keenwild station. By 2009, he was promoted to battalion chief, but a reorganization left him feeling tenuous about the existence of this position.

“What can I do and do good?” he asked himself and began to prepare for the possibility of being transferred off the Hill. But he knew Felix’s retirement plans and also worked to ensure he was competitive for this position and succeeded.

Similar to many Forest Service firefighters, he has toured the country battling blazes. Besides the western states, he has been summoned to fires in Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and New York. The latter, fighting fires on Long Island, allowed him to see New York City.

Just as his predecessors Norm Walker and Felix, Espinoza remains a member of the Southern California Incident Management teams. Large fires might require his presence outside the district.

“I like it. It’s a good way to learn,” he stated. “The biggest thing of the job is the intangibles of working with other people and building a team in such a short time.”

And his friend and former supervisor, Felix confirms this attribute. “Freddie is committed to the mission of the Forest Service and the public will be served,” Felix said this week. “He’s very thoughtful about how everything is affected — his people and the public.”

Firefighting can be a grueling job. It’s more than trips around the country and during the summer, especially a dry summer; the vigilance and tension is palpable. Espinoza admits it can be difficult for firefighters with families. It was for him.

But Janey, his wife, works at the San Jacinto Ranger Station and understands the demands on his time and effect on families. Regardless of the work pressures, Espinoza is an exemplary Hill denizen. He’s been involved with Idyllwild School as his children, Hillbillies, moved on to Hemet High School, where Kyra graduated this year and Cody will be a sophomore next spring. Freddie Jr., from his first marriage, remains close.

He and Janey are frequently found on the softball field in summer or on the volleyball court during cold weather.

Family relationships are important and critical to Espinoza, who also acknowledges the professional family of firefighters. As he begins the new job, many of the other local fire professionals already know him and are strengthening their relationships.