Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy announced his retirement on Monday, Dec. 4, a few hours before the deadly and voracious Thomas Fire erupted in Ventura County.
It was an implausible coincidence to encounter the biggest and most complicated wildfire of his 36-year career with the city fire department, following a few summer seasons with the U.S. Forest Service, on the very day he made public his decision to hang up his turnout gear, as of next spring.
With the Thomas Fire’s incident command a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional event, he is one of the most experienced and best-informed professionals about the technique, topography and history of fighting fires on the local landscape, amid a blaze that already has consumed more than 400 square miles.
On Thursday, about 36 hours before frenzied winds whipped the fire closer towards the homes and neighborhoods of Montecito and Santa Barbara, he took the time to answer a few questions from Newsmakers.
Q: How does this fire compare to all the others you’ve worked on – what’s different?
A: This is by far the biggest fire that I’ve ever been involved with.
I think back to the Painted Cave fire that was pretty wild fire behavior, the Sycamore Canyon, when I was in college still. The first part of the Tea fire was pretty wildfire behavior, but fire behavior is getting like that all the time now and that’s what kind of scary.
There’s no doubt to people in the fire world that climate change is real, it’s happening and it’s affecting the world that we work in, We had one percent humidity on this fire – that’s insane. You put that together with winds, with fuel that’s been affected by seven years of drought, you’re gonna’ get stuff that you’ve never seen before and that’s kind of what we’re seeing.
(And) There’s no fire season anymore.
What are we -- 10 days from Christmas? It used to rain earlier. You’d get two inches of rain and fire season would be over. Well, that’s obviously not going to happen before the end of the year so I don’t know when fire season is anymore.
Q: There was a firefighter (Corey Iverson from San Diego) killed today – how does that affect crews on the fire?
A: It’s an awful feeling. I’m not on the fire lines, I’m playing an administrative role in this, but it reminds everyone of how inherently dangerous what they’re doing is. And a lot of times we forget that.
The first thing that comes to my mind is, who is he? How old is he or she? Do they have a family? Do they have a mother, dad, a wife, a girlfriend, kids? That’s the type of stuff that I think about. And someone getting a horrible phone call or knock on the door.
Q: How would you assess the job the multi-jurisdictional firefighting force has done so far, scale of 1-to-10?
A: Give them a 10. The scale of this thing, the directions it’s going, the speed at which it was going, I think it’s been an incredible effort. Actually I’d back it down to a 9, because anytime somebody dies you can't say it was a good thing.
But for the complexity, the amount of departments, organizations involved, to get everybody out where they needed to be. Most of the tragic loss of homes and of civilian life really was in the first 24 hours.
It’s not an easy to thing to put together something that involves a state team and a federal team and the acreage involved in each jurisdiction. Today, I hear this thing come over the radio, “Engine 5 respond to a traffic accident in the Mission underpass, Salt Lake City Fire is on scene.” So Salt Lake City is calling in a 911 call that they’re helping at this traffic accident because they were driving by, and they’re calling to let Santa Barbara Fire Department know that they’re there, and our guys show up and there’s guys from Salt Lake City. That doesn’t happen a lot.
Q:- What’s different about being a firefighter today than when you started?
A: It’s a lot different. The technology is absolutely different, the equipment so much better, the trucks are so much better, the communication’s so much better, the mutual aid system is unbelievable, the ability to get, like we did, to get 8,000 people here in support, a couple weeks before Christmas, is pretty amazing.
Q: Here’s the “what about me” question - when can people under mandatory evacuation go back?
A: Well, nobody’s going anywhere until this wind event is over.
There are people who are actively planning for that, the reentry thing, that’s in process. How it happens is what they’re working on. When it happens is when fire operations say it’s okay.
Because there’s a lot that goes to it in a neighborhood – did people turn their gas off, did people turn their power off, did they do all this other stuff,? The utility companies have to go through and make sure everything’s okay, communications companies have to go through and make sure everything’s okay - did your power go out, is your house full of rotten food, do you have to re-light all the pilots - it’s just the kind of stuff you don’t think about.
Q: How disappointed were you that the fire broke out the same day you announced your retirement and stepped on your story? How did you manage that timing?
A: (Laughs) I really don’t even know what to say. Hey, fires are going to keep breaking out and stuff’s going to be going on no matter who comes and goes. That’s why it’s a 24/7 job.
Somebody’s always going to be doing it and it never stops, so I think my retirement has zero relevance with what goes on with this thing.
Q: What should I ask that I haven’t?
A: One of the things I am most grateful for was to work with all the people at the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. I am so proud of them all.
And, in addition, to be around when some of the best people in the Country were still working in Santa Barbara. People like Mark Linane, Stan Stewart, Herb McElwee, Tony Duprey, Bob Bell, Mark Vontillow, Dana D’Andrea, Kevin Taylor and too many more to mention.
Whether I worked with them on a daily basis or not, they lifted the game of the entire area. People that were trained by them are working in Departments throughout this area. That’s quite a legacy to leave.
Images: Chief Pat McElroy; Chief Pat on scene (Paul Wellman) ; an early version of the mandatory firefighter 'stache; fighting fires with the U.S. Forest Service in Grateful Dead days.