A Chat with the Fire Chief

By Kelly Mahan Herrick   |   October 13, 2020

As record-breaking wildfires affect millions of people across the state of California, we recently sat down with Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor, who has been at the helm of the District for one year. From getting to know Chief Taylor and his family better, to learning about Montecito’s future fire and debris flow risk, we covered a lot of bases. Here is our conversation.

Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor chats with us after a year at the helm

Q. Tell us a little about your background before joining the Montecito Fire Protection District.

A. I was studying animal science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and I wanted to become a veterinarian. I was in my third year of university and I needed a summer job, so I went to work as a firefighter for CalFire in the summer. After about two weeks, I fell in love with the profession and it changed my whole professional trajectory. After that first fire season, over the winter, I became an emergency medical technician. And then I went back for a second fire season and also started working at a private ambulance company in San Luis Obispo. Then I went to paramedic school up at Stanford and I did my paramedic internship at Berkeley. I was positive that I wanted to be a firefighter paramedic.

I went to the Fire Academy at Alan Hancock College and then I landed in my hometown with the City of Paso Robles, where I was hired in 1991. I was promoted through the ranks, and in 2003, I was promoted to Battalion Chief and then came here in February of 2015 as Division Chief, and along the way I earned a bachelor’s degree in Fire Administration and master’s degree in Emergency Services Management.

What about your family? I’m sure many people would be surprised to know that you are living on a boat in the Harbor.

I have the most wonderful wife in the world, Jo. We got married in 1991 and up until we moved down here, she worked as a registered nurse in the emergency department at a local hospital up in San Luis Obispo County. In 1997, we were blessed with a son, Jake. After high school, he was accepted at several universities and he chose UCSB, about a month after I was hired at Montecito Fire. So it worked out well for us. We relocated down here to Santa Barbara and for two years, we’ve been living on a boat in the Harbor, my wife and I. We also have a black lab named Abby who’s 10.

What are you most proud of in your time at MFPD thus far?

So there are two things that I’m really, really proud of. And the first one is how our organization collaborates with everyone. It’s my personal philosophy that no single agency can do anything by itself; we need the support of the community, and the labor and management to be in lockstep, and we need to cooperate well with our partners. And we do all three of those things exceedingly well. So I’m very, very proud of that.

The other thing that I’m really, really proud of is this thing that we’ve created in the organization called the culture of empowerment. And the notion of our culture of empowerment is to push responsibility as far down the organization as appropriate in the name of professional development. So we identify our future leaders by their responsibilities that they’re able to accomplish and our culture of empowerment. You trust that every employee, at all times, has the organization and the community’s best interests in mind in all of their decision making.

From a community perspective, the thing that I’m most proud of is the way that the organization operates with the community, in all things. It would be very rare for us to say, ‘that’s not a fire department problem, call the water department or streets or sanitary or the sheriff or public works, or flood control…’ We’ve worked very hard to try to collaborate with all of those agencies so that we can get the community member the solution that they’re looking for, or at least address their need in a timely manner. We’re also really responsive.

How does the COVID-19 pandemic fit into all of this? How has the District changed since March?

We’ve been exceedingly proactive in protecting our firefighters from community transmission. And what I mean by that is we’ve implemented several steps in the continuity of operations plan that I always reference. We have a social distancing protocol, and the station is only open to essential visitors. Families are not allowed to visit. We are very strict, unfortunately, as we go through this. But the upside of that is that we have not had a positive case in any of our personnel. It’s a testament to that culture of empowerment, where we provide general guidelines, but we trust that the firefighters are going to do the right thing.

What do you see as the Montecito community’s most significant natural disaster issue in the future?

So we have a very significant 50-year fire history, both in our community, and on the South Coast, and we will always have that flooding risk post fire. We are a coastal community, so we do have a slight risk from tsunami. Although there has not been one in recorded history that affected Montecito, the forecasted inundation maps certainly do show the chance of a significant tsunami. We also have the risk of earthquake because we live in California near several substantial faults. I went through a pretty significant earthquake in Paso Robles as a Battalion Chief, and it was about a 10-year recovery. Then we have the two major transportation corridors of Highway 101 and the train, so we have to be prepared for a hazardous materials event, from either a train derailment or a tanker that crashes or something along those lines.

I provide all of that as background to say our biggest risk is to maintain our resilient attitude. So we can’t control if any of those things are going to occur, right? But we can as a community, prepare for their eventuality and more importantly, prepare for how we’ll return to normal as soon as possible after that large event.

A kind of case study for us is the Thomas Fire, and then the debris flow, which were both horrible events. We lost 23 community members, and none of us would ever want to go through that again, but the community showed extraordinary resilience after those two events, the way everybody came together and the way that we returned to somewhat normal. I wouldn’t say that the community is one hundred percent recovered, but my gosh, it’s close, and really, really impressive.

We need to make sure that the community doesn’t develop disaster amnesia. We live right up against the national forest, so there are going to be fires. Our job as the Fire District is to do our very best to protect the community from disaster and we do that through these fuel modification programs. Just because we haven’t had a fire for three years, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the fuel modification programs. It doesn’t mean that the community shouldn’t continue to cut down their stuff and have us chipping. It means that we should take the opportunity to be more vigilant when disasters occurs.

What is happening with the watershed, and the recovery from the Thomas Fire?

Relative to debris flow risk, our schedule is exactly the same as last year. The Chaparral grows through August. Our surveyor started his survey beginning in August. He’ll walk these test plots that they’ve been monitoring since the fire, since a couple of days after the fire was out and before the debris flow. He’ll walk those and then he does a drone capture, and then he compares that ground level data with the drone level data with satellite imagery to determine what percentage is green growth. Obviously the more regrown that exists, the more stable the soil is, which means the less material available for mobilization.

What can the community expect this winter with rainfall, disaster maps, and evacuations?

I don’t think that there is an abnormal risk of debris flow next year, but we have engaged Atkins Engineering to come back and update that map again. This will likely be the last year that they do that because what we will find most likely in their report is what they’ll identify for us as our ‘forever risks.’ And what I mean by that is more of a debris- laden flooding risk than a debris flow like we experienced on January 9, 2018.

Because of the steepness of our hillsides and the type of storms that we get, there’s always going to be a risk for boulders and other debris coming off the mountain into our neighborhoods. If this map is going to be the last map we produce, we’ll be open and transparent about that.

Can you give us an update on Fire Station 3?

We’ve partnered with the Carp/Summerland Fire Protection District to do something called the Fire Station Location Study, which is underway. We are looking for an opportunity to find a mutually beneficial station location that works both for the Summerland area and the eastern portion of Montecito. Once we have the necessary data, consultants will identify an area that would be suitable for the fire station, and once we have that information, then the public meetings start. We anticipate maybe mid-November, or early December for public meetings.

Once we have all of this data back, we have to ask the community if they agree with our risk analysis. It’s super important both to me personally, and the organization, that we provide the community with all these alternatives, and then they’re able to make an educated decision that’s hopefully based upon that data and objective presentations. For us, it’s just about being able to service our community.

What do you hope to leave behind as your legacy when your tenure as Fire Chief is through?

So I am a very big believer in passing on every lesson that you’ve learned, to those that are interested in following in your footsteps. And we have four absolutely wonderful people here at Montecito Fire that are the reason why I became fire chief and that was to mentor them, to continue their progression through the organization. I see it as my task to pass on all those lessons learned or my knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences to those employees, so that they’re prepared to fill behind me when I leave there.

One of the big things that I told the Board when they hired me, that there were two things that I wanted to do. The first was to enhance this culture of empowerment, and then to develop an executive development program. So that there’s a succession plan in place behind me when I leave.

Most likely, the only thing that would cause me to leave sooner than my five-year contract is if there was an employee ready to move into my position that was ready to go. And that would be the signal that I had been successful.

For more information about the Montecito Fire Protection District, visit www.montecitofire.com.


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