Anderson Valley’s New Fire Chief

by Mark Scaramella, October 23, 2013

Andres Avila was hired to replace retiring AV Fire Chief Colin Wilson effective October 1, 2013 and will assume the position of Fire Chief on November 1 after a one month transition period after Chief Wilson retires.

Avila was born in Sebastopol in 1979 and graduated from Analy High School there in 1997. Soon after graduation Avila entered the Electrician’s Union’s apprentice program and after five years received his journeyman’s card.

He moved to Anderson Valley in 2003 to manage a ranch in the Yorkville area and started volunteering for the AV Fire Department almost immediately. “I'm Colin Wilson's neighbor,” said Avila. “He came over and recruited me. He knew it would be good to have the guy next door in the department.”

Before arriving at the Yorkville Ranch, Avila had worked as a ranch caretaker in Cloverdale. “I got a lot of good experience with ranch work there, and when the opening game up in Anderson Valley I took it.”

Avila stayed busy during the years after 2003 with electrician work, ranch management and volunteering with the fire department, including doing all the training offered locally.

“Not long after arriving in Anderson Valley I met my wife-to-be at the Yorkville Ice Cream Social. We were also both taking the EMT class. I married Tiffany (nee Egloff) in 2006. (The Egloffs live at the ranch behind the Yorkville store.) Avila and his wife have two young kids, a boy and a girl.

Why did you decide to apply for the chief's job?

“I'm still trying to answer that,” Avila laughed. “I never planned for things to work out this way. Several of the senior volunteers pulled me aside and suggested I think about it. When I mentioned it to Chief Wilson he told me that if I was serious I better start preparing myself. So I went to some local classes and workshops and then started attending budget meetings and fire protection committee meetings. In a strange way I kind of liked it, even though I prefer the outdoors to desk work. For awhile there it was looking like no one else in the department was going to step up to the plate, and we were starting to get worried that someone from the outside might get hired. Although it was not my original intent, I'm here, I’m a known quantity, and people in the department seemed to want me to apply, so I did.

“My first task will be to get a full understanding of what this job involves,” said Avila. “There are major challenges to managing a volunteer fire department. Recruitment and retention are important of course because you don't have the money to attract people. And people have to leave whatever they're doing, at home or at work, to respond to an emergency.”

“We have a number of aging firefighters in the Valley who are either recently retired or about to retire. They put in a lot of time and they have a lot of important experience and they are spread throughout this large district. Now we have to get ready for younger people with less experience. So public awareness and recruiting becomes a priority. After I get a handle on the office part of this job, my first major task will be a recruitment drive. People have been pretty generous with their donations but we have to improve recruiting. The demographics in the Valley can make that hard because younger people do not always stay in the Valley and more and more of our residents are aging. Even if you can get a young person into firefighter training there is no guarantee they will stay in the Valley since they might prefer to take up a paying job outside the Valley. I also need to make sure that we have volunteers in the right places.

“Chief Wilson made it clear to me that the job is not about fire trucks rolling down the highway with lights and sirens, or waiting for a call. It’s more administration and management with the occasional emergency call.

“So far the benefit assessment has proven to be effective. Over time we will probably have to deal with inflation since the benefit assessment has a cap. Local construction and increased property values have made up for some of that. At some point there could be a problem, but not in the immediate future. Donations and strike team income are always helpful and appreciated, but we cannot depend on that revenue.”

The Lightning Complex Fires in 2008?

“The community came together very effectively for that and Chief Wilson deserves a lot of credit for organizing the early response. He did a great job assigning people to the right jobs in the right places. We came together as a department and we're still benefiting from that. Our resources were stretched very thin but we kept it together and everybody deserves great credit. That impressive response showed me what this department can really do when the pressure is on. It took CalFire at least a week to ramp up their response. Plus they had to deal with other fires in the area at the same time.

Fire prevention?

“I certainly hope to work with the watershed resource group and the Fire Safe Council to work on ways to clear and reduce fuel loads and of course fire safety in general. But I probably won't get into telling people when to mow their lawns. (Laughs.)

“We do have a cadet program and we work with the schools and that helps with recruitment and fire protection at the same time. In the next few days we are planning to do courtesy inspections and required commercial inspections of public places to make sure that property owners are aware of any fire safety problems. So far people seem to have been pretty cooperative in dealing with and fixing fire hazards when they are pointed out.

“Our volunteers are the most important part of the fire department. I have a lot of respect for them. This job could not be done without them. I lean on them; I depend on them a lot. And everyone else who helps indirectly with donations and services and support during emergencies. Without the volunteers I would have a hard fall. Hopefully we will have a quiet winter so I can get my feet on the ground here — no big fires, fuel spills or accidents. I don't anticipate big changes. I’m hoping for a seamless transition.” ¥¥

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