Montecito Fire Chief David Neels is Taking the Fight to the Fire

By Jeff Wing   |   August 15, 2023
Montecito Fire Chief David Neels poses by his ride, which is handily painted Fire Engine Red (photo courtesy Montecito Fire Department)

Montecito Fire Department’s (MFD) Station 91 is an understated, red-tiled building in the foothills above Montecito – at a glance more “stately hacienda” than Command Center; though the hacienda’s 30’ aerial somewhat gives the game away. Fire Chief David Neels likewise cuts an approachable figure. Soft-spoken and earnest but given to sudden grins, he is holding court in the station conference room. As if to keep the mission top-of-mind, large windows frame the gorgeous Santa Ynez Mountains, which as a matter of record occasionally catch fire. 

“We have a challenging area here on the South Coast,” Neels says, “from Gaviota to the Ventura County line. The mountains have a very steep grade, and fire burns uphill much more rapidly. But we also deal with the challenges of access. There’s no road system that we can easily get to.” When a fire emergency is afoot, regional responders quickly come together with no jurisdictional murmuring to complicate rollout. “We have a really strong mutual aid plan in this county,” Neels says. “Carpinteria-Summerland, the City of Santa Barbara, the County Fire department, and the Los Padres National Forest – we come together quickly on any fire ignition on our front country.” He recalls one such ignition that still causes locals to shudder in remembrance.

“The night the Tea Fire started, I was coming back from a place called South OPS in Riverside County – the Southern California Coordination Center for all the region’s fire agencies. The wind and the weather and the temperature that night – it just didn’t feel right.” Feeling indefinably uneasy, Neels jumped off the northbound 101 at San Ysidro, his intuitions at full boil. He drove to his then-home in Santa Barbara via Mountain Drive. “It was so concerning how that day felt, I just wanted to take the opportunity to refamiliarize myself with Montecito.” He got home and switched on the TV. KEYT had breaking news. “There was a fire above Montecito,” Neels says. “Seeing the ignition on TV, I knew we were going to have a major incident.” 2008’s Tea Fire, fanned by relentless sundowner winds pouring down the front of the Santa Ynez range, would create absolute havoc. As the news cycle ramped up to get its arms around the narrative, Neels and his fellow responders quickly and quietly organized without fanfare and swarmed the oncoming cataclysm. “Firefighters, you know,” Neels says with a mordant grin. “We stay engaged even when off duty.”

David Neels – former MFD Division Chief of Operations – was sworn in as Montecito’s new Fire Chief in April 2023, succeeding outgoing Chief Kevin Taylor. What was that journey like? “I was at Cal Poly majoring in agricultural engineering, but I’ve always had friends that work for the fire service. Having discussions or spending family time with them got me interested in that as a possible profession.” When he dove in, the route was circuitous. “I started in ’89 as a paid call firefighter in San Luis Obispo County and did that for six years while completing my degree at Cal Poly, as well as the fire academy at Allan Hancock College. Then I became a paramedic both in the Bakersfield area and here in Santa Barbara County. But I always knew I wanted to get back to the fire service. I was hired by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department back in 1998.”

Newly-minted Montecito Fire Chief David Neels takes the oath of office, April 2023 (photo courtesy Montecito Fire Department)

In the First Responder ecosystem, fluidity of movement is everything. Juxtapose that, for instance, against the perennially evolving Highway 101 widening project. “We’ve been in meetings for years preparing for the roundabouts at both Olive Mill and San Ysidro,” Neels says of MFD’s tactical approach to meddlesome roadwork in general. “Construction projects that threaten to slow our routes of travel are inevitable.” When the 101 work presented a potential hindrance for responders, Neels and his team effectively planted a new station on the other side of the obstruction. “We started talking,” Neels says avidly. “Could we actually place a resource south of the 101 corridor? There are well over 200 homes in that area. We also have the Rosewood Miramar, All Saints-by-the-Sea, the Friendship Center…” When developing responses to seemingly intractable problems, it helps to have engaged citizen-partners in high places. “We coordinated with Ty Warner, who very graciously said ‘…Of course you can use a piece of our property here to put a temporary fire station in place!’” Neels smiles. “That engine has responded to more than 37 calls for service,” he says. The episode highlights a particular character of the Montecito environs, and the question of access.

“The way our community has developed over the years, it’s not easy to gain access. Our operators have to be very alert in low light situations all the time, especially at night. We have a lot of trees and vegetation, and that makes for some very narrow access at times. Of course, it’s also what makes the area unique.” Picture in your mind’s eye a huge red fire engine wending its way along Montecito’s charmingly demure neighborhood roads. The degree to which community members share the “firefighting” mission can’t be overstated.

“We live with the threat of wildfire,” Neels says plainly. “Vigilance about fuels reduction is critical in a community like ours.” When responders are stretched to the limit, the homeowner having minimized their own vulnerability is a huge part of the equation. “Creating defensible space around your home is so vitally important, because it does take time to get all those resources on site. That’s also why partnering with an institution like Westmont makes really good sense. It allows us to show them what right looks like.”

David Neels’ mother/lifelong #1 fan ceremonially pins the inevitable Fire Chief at his swearing in (photo courtesy Montecito Fire Department)

2008’s Tea Fire swept onto Westmont’s forested campus with a wind-driven vengeance. Fleeing through the woods was impossible. Per the school’s and the MFD’s wildfire planning, around 800 people scrambled into the campus’ Murchison Gymnasium where they sheltered in place, the raging fire later found to have made its closest approach about 10 feet from the building. “We always have to keep reminding ourselves of these events,” Neels says. “Just recently I met with President Beebe from Westmont to review some of those things.” Given Montecito’s woodland terrain, the MFD knows where to put its resources. “We have two Wildland Fire Specialists, Nic Elmquist and Maeve Juarez,” Neels says. “Their primary mission is to continue community involvement in fuels reduction. We’re grazing over 30 acres with sheep this year alone in three different project areas.” Westmont spokesperson Scott Craig picks up the thread. “The college has been working with Maeve to map and then reduce the number of dead and dying trees in the barranca to the west of campus between our faculty homes. They started last week, dramatically clearing out the creek area, and it looks great. The vegetation had been quite dense. Maeve said they hope to keep a smaller crew available for additional clearing in the area through the summer.” 

From strategic sheep grazing to computer modeling of optimal evacuation routes, MFD transparency brings locals into the planning process, as Chief Neels explains. “People want to know – as they should – that decisions are being thoughtfully made with real data, and they want to know how we make our decisions,” he says. “Those decisions are reviewed, approved, and implemented at the direction of the department’s elected, five-member Board of Directors whose decision-making matrix is guided by the best interests of the community. So it’s important to us that our fire stations and facilities are open and welcoming to the community. We hold monthly Board meetings here at Fire Station 91 and we encourage the community to attend.”

David Neels at his desk job (photo courtesy Montecito Fire Department)

The devastating mudslides of 2018 are an example of private and public synergies interweaving to rescue, repair, and rehabilitate. “The debris flow was a corner-turning moment here,” Neels says. “Each member of our community experienced the tragedy differently. We also saw a unity of government involvement from the federal, state, and county levels. My memories of that night of the event – engaging with heavy equipment, trying to get access – one of my personal commitments as Fire Chief is the responsibility of making sure we don’t forget, that we remain aware of the potential, especially after the 2023 storms in January and the saturation event.”

Recruitment to the cause remains an ongoing effort. High school students – hopeful, seeking, too often bewildered by the ill-fitting advice template offered by well-meaning sponsors – are increasingly privy to the First Responder family as a career. “The fire chiefs from all the agencies are committed to increasing outreach to our local schools and recruiting young people from our communities to join our profession. We are actively looking for opportunities to engage with the local school districts to make that a reality.” 

Interfacing with and recruiting from the community is everything, and the Montecito Fire Department is an open door. “We get a lot of people from the area walking up the drive with their kids, and we encourage that,” Chief Neels says. “Our firefighters enjoy showing our equipment, explaining to community members of any age what our day-to-day looks like, and hopefully providing them with a better understanding of their fire department.” 

Some of those young people walking the halls of Montecito Fire Station 91 in barely concealed awe – they just might have their imaginations spurred. Something like that happened once upon a time to a young boy named David with a dream to serve his neighbors. It seems to have worked out.

“If you think back to the night of the Tea Fire,” Chief Neels says with visible pride, “every station on the South Coast and in the adjoining counties responded.” Who needs caped crusaders? For his part that evening, Neels walked into the house, had his intuitions confirmed on KEYT’s newscast, and didn’t break stride. Still holding his car keys, he picked up the phone and dialed out with a strategically critical message. “I called my wife,” he says with an almost apologetic grin. “’Hey, I need to head back into work…’”  


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