When Fire Chief John Walbridge first arrived at the Live Oak fire station in 1991, it triggered childhood memories. He remembered riding his bike to the station from his home a few blocks away to obtain burn permits for his father in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. He even recognized a seasoned firefighter who was still stationed there.
“I would come down here for the permits …. My dad never wanted to, so it was always my job,” he said.
Walbridge remained local, attending Cabrillo College and UCSC. He worked trades, got a seasonal position with Cal Fire, went to paramedic school, and eventually landed a position with the Central Fire District in Live Oak.
Some 30 years later, Walbridge is still with Central Fire and has just been named its new chief. The district’s long-awaited merger with Aptos/La Selva Fire was recently certified by the Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission.
“It’s truly my privilege to be a part of this organization, and certainly humbled, during this really transitional moment,” Walbridge said.
During his time with Central Fire, Walbridge helped start the district’s paramedic program. He held the positions of fire captain, battalion chief, temporary division chief and, now, fire chief.
Fire Marshall Fire Mike DeMars said he was happy with the decision. DeMars, who is originally from Rhode Island and landed in California while stationed with the Coast Guard, signed up as a paid call firefighter within a year or so of Walbridge.
“I think it’s a great choice to bring John in,” he said. “He’s got so much experience …. He knows how this place works.”
The merger of Aptos La/Selva and Central will result in a new Central Fire District, covering the boundaries of both districts—an estimated 25,000 acres and roughly 90,000 residents in Aptos, La Selva, Live Oak, Rio Del Mar, Soquel and Capitola.
DeMars said the consolidation is about 40 years in the making. The last time it happened was right before he and Walbridge arrived.
“We’ve seen five attempts at this since we’ve been here,” DeMars said. “But it’s actually happening this time.”
Added Walbridge: “This hasn’t happened during our generation. It’s the first time I’ve gone through one. It’s a unique opportunity.”
The merger will not result in the closing of any stations or diminishing service. Instead, it will add to the amount of support firefighters receive by streamlining services and reigning in costs.
“A lot of people have been worried about what’s going to happen to their local stations,” Walbridge said. “But nothing’s changing—we’re just combining. We’ll have the same or more personal. We might have new patches and logos … but nothing is going away. If you dial 911, you’ll get a red truck and at least three people at your house to help you. Service won’t be interrupted.”
Originally, the plan was to retain the former Chief of Central Fire for the new, larger district, and the Aptos/La Selva Chief would act as support. But things changed when one decided to retire and the other received a job offer in Nevada.
Walbridge was at first asked to be a temporary replacement before the new district’s governing board decided to make it permanent.
“I will stay in this position for as long as the board will have me,” he said. “I will work 110% at whatever they need.”
Walbridge said that the district’s main focus moving forward will be hazard mitigation and community outreach. The CZU Lightning Complex fire that destroyed more than 86,000 acres and almost 1,500 structures last year have had a big impact on the public’s relationship with local fire departments. Residents are now coming to them directly for advice.
“While we don’t have all the resources to go out and clear everyone’s yard, widen their roads … we can give them advice, show them where resources are,” he explained. “It’s about harnessing the community’s interest. Help them help themselves.”
Walbridge credited DeMars and Deputy Fire Marshall Marco Mack for their “phenomenal” work with Community Risk Reduction. They implemented a new program known as Ready Set Go (RSG), aiming to promote fire prevention and reddiness.
“We don’t get a lot of big wildfires here, but as we saw last year… it’s possible,” DeMars said. “People are coming to us asking, ‘How can we not have that happen here?’ The CZU was terrible, but it has helped us get the [RSG] program moving.”
Looking ahead, Walbridge says he has a lot he wants to accomplish as the Central Fire District’s new Chief. With the merger complete, one goal is already realized, he said.
“One of my goals was to change this patch,” he said, pointing at the current district patch. “And I’m going to be here for it. That to me is a reward.”