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Ask A USFS Employee: Fire Chief - Robert Garcia

From the October 2021 issue of the Angeles National Forest Volunteer Newsletter

We had the opportunity to talk with Fire Chief Robert Garcia, a 25-year veteran of the Forest Service who has been serving the Angeles National Forest in several capacities for decades, working within Engine and Hotshot crews, then getting tagged to take on a Superintendent role with the Little Tujunga Hotshots, becoming Battalion Chief and then Division Chief of the Los Angeles River Ranger District before becoming
our current Fire Chief in 2015. Before that he was part of the Wildland Fire Explorer Academy at the time of the Academy’s founding in 1995.

Question: Chief Garcia, first let me thank you for your time, us volunteers do not get much opportunity to interact with wildland fire crews, we usually radio your crews for assistance with fires, vehicle crashes, and other needs and then we retreat when the Forest Service arrive. Have you encountered volunteers in the field over the years, and if so, in what ways?

Garcia: Yes absolutely, first let me say thank you for all that you do for the Angeles National Forest. I believe public service is absolutely a noble calling and volunteering in public service is a noble calling that requires a true commitment to service.

My first interaction with the USFS was as a volunteer. It was hugely impactful to me, and those years were very formative years in shaping my commitment to public service. I volunteered over 5000 hours on the Arroyo Seco Ranger District.

As a volunteer I learned a lot about the forest and I was very fortunate to be influenced and mentored by several great leaders at the time from District Ranger Terry Ellis, and others from fire management like George Geer and several others. Later in my career I was privileged to be the lead instructor for the chainsaw training program that I later passed on to another friend and mentor Greg Stenmo.

Question: Since you have been involved in fire for so many years, I’m curious what unusual or unexpected things you might have experienced while working in the ANF that has left a lasting impression. Has there been anything remarkable that you have encountered, perhaps working with the recreating public, that volunteers might learn a lesson from?

Garcia: I must say after 25 years of fire fighting on the Angeles National Forest, most of what is described in your question about unusual or unexpected things can’t be shared with the general audience. All kidding aside though, what comes to mind is the examples of people helping people.

As you know, many people experience their worst day while visiting the forest. The Angeles has so much beauty to experience but it can be unforgiving. Whether on a trail or a canyon road, when the worst happens, it is fulfilling to see people helping people.

There have been some amazing stories of survival on the forest and often times the difference has been people willing to help perfect strangers. With the challenges we all experience from the impacts of heavy use on the forest, sometimes it is important to remember there is still good in people.

Question: We have seen an increase in the severity of wildfire across the American Southwest over perhaps the last 10 or 15 years, with some previously unimaginable burns taking place recently, such as the Bobcat Fire which was something of a game changer having burned literally across a section from the Foothill Cities to the South, up and across Angeles Crest Highway, and then further North all the way down to the desert floor.

We see tremendous challenges facing the Forest Service in light of budget difficulties, a warming climate, and a sharp increase in the number of recreating public. From your perspective, what do you consider to be perhaps the most pressing challenge facing the Angeles?

Garcia: The Angeles National Forest has always been such an important piece of land for so many people. With the increase in people, I think the importance increases. I think the most pressing challenge remains how to protect the forest and the people from fire and flood.

There is nothing that will change the forest more quickly and there is nothing that will impact the forest and the places we care about for so long. Fire is a natural part of the forest so finding a way to keep good fire where it is needed and protect the forest when and where and under the conditions that the impact will be too great.

Although fire is and always will be part of this landscape, when we experience the level of fire in large devastating fires such as Bobcat, it will take a generation or more for the landscape to naturally recover to how we remember it to say nothing for the trails, and developed facilities we work so hard to maintain.

Question: I hope you don’t mind my asking, but I have heard other volunteers mention your 1959 Studebaker, and I have to say that I’m somewhat jealous. Southern California still seems to be the place to go to see lovely classic cars. Of course the safest thing to do with a classic is to park it some place safe, never drive it. Do you do drive the Studebaker in the cities?

The story about the fire chief with a 1959 Studebaker is from my predecessor. Jim Hall was the former fire chief prior to my becoming the chief in 2015. I stay in touch with Jim and he still maintains his Studebaker.

Thank you, we greatly appreciate your time, Chief Garcia.

Last updated: by Angeles National Forest Volunteer Newsletter