Nate Armstrong took over Cal Fire leadership in Santa Cruz in November.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Big job at a tough time: Cal Fire’s new leader talks about the challenges of wildfire defense

The new leader of Cal Fire in Santa Cruz County, Nate Armstrong, is making a few changes, while insisting that the statewide agency’s “aggressive initial attack” philosophy and other core principles are not his to change and were in place during the devastation of the CZU fires and the criticism that followed.

Nate Armstrong of Ben Lomond became chief of Cal Fire’s Felton-based San Mateo-Santa Cruz County Unit in November — not even quite a full year since the final embers of the CZU fire had been extinguished.

Armstrong, 38, has filled many roles in his 15 years with Cal Fire, working as a firefighter, paramedic, search-and-rescue team member, training captain and emergency command center leader. He began working for fire departments as a 16-year-old in Southern California.

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At 6-foot-2, he looks taller in his boots, and younger than his years. It’s not hard to imagine him as a teenager hooked on the vocation. He’s personable, telling a caller, just before a recent interview, that he was “swell” but couldn’t talk right then.

Hanging up, Armstrong slumped into the office chair nearest his desk. The walls were bare, weeks after he took the office of chief Ian Larkin, a Watsonville native who retired after 33 years of Cal Fire experience.

Nate Armstrong of Cal Fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I haven’t moved in all the way yet,” he said with a smile before patiently beginning to answer questions.

The questions don’t come easy. Fire destruction has become front and center in the wake of the CZU Lightning Complex fire that killed one person, destroyed approximately 1,500 homes and structures and charred about 86,500 acres.

Then you add in drought, climate change, a pandemic and recent retirements, including that of Cal Fire Director Thom Porter, who promoted Armstrong.

In Santa Cruz County, local fire agencies not part of Cal Fire have seen changes, too, with newly appointed chiefs at several departments. Central and Aptos La Selva Fire last year consolidated into Central Fire District of Santa Cruz County and appointed John Walbridge as chief. The City of Santa Cruz’ fire department has not announced a permanent chief since Jason Hajduk announced retirement in August. Rob Oatey is interim chief.

Yet Armstrong seems confident and upbeat stepping into his far-ranging role. He was deputy chief of operations during the CZU fires, so he knows that legacy, and he knows that some county residents are still reeling from its massive destruction.

Firefighters were hit hard and Cal Fire was unable to reach some endangered neighborhoods, so strong feelings surround how the massive complex was approached.

The aftermath — including a report by Santa Cruz County’s civil grand jury that found fault with Cal Fire and county leadership — put a spotlight on the tangled web of local firefighting, government and nonprofit agencies, volunteers and others whose responsibilities intersect with Cal Fire’s.

Armstrong’s unit chief responsibilities include oversight of hundreds of firefighters in 13 Santa Cruz unit stations — full-time, part-time, volunteer, seasonal and incarcerated.

Because the county contracts with Cal Fire for services, Armstrong also serves as chief of Santa Cruz County Fire. It includes five stations that are a mix of county and state personnel and/or equipment. And Armstrong is the leader of the county’s five “volunteer companies” that assist those stations. The volunteer companies are in Davenport, Bonny Doon, South Skyline, Loma Prieta and Corralitos.

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Santa Cruz County Fire also includes the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Fire Department Advisory Commission and Fire Department Finance.

If it wasn’t convoluted enough, Armstrong also heads the Pajaro Valley Fire District, because that district contracts with Cal Fire for administrative and staffing services. (The county’s other seven independent districts are not his responsibility, aside from collaboration.)

So there are many relationships Armstrong must maintain. It’s a big job. At a tough time.

Lookout took the opportunity to sit down with Armstrong recently and talk about his approach.

A firefighter heads toward a wall of smoke
The CZU Lightning Complex fire destroyed 1,500 houses and structures in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

People questioned many Cal Fire decisions during the fire, including its responsiveness. Will Cal Fire be more proactive, and will there be protocol changes with you?

First of all, Cal Fire does not have a let-it-burn philosophy. Our policy has not changed; we have the same philosophy of aggressive initial attack. There were 27 fires that morning and we put out 22 of those in the first 24 hours. And there were other fires, and everyone was fighting their own fires. Santa Clara, North Bay, Monterey already had major fires.

We did not have what we needed. People don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. We had four fires that burned together. Waddell Creek? We were there. We had twice as many fires as we did engines.

Are there still fences to mend, between Cal Fire and residents and/or volunteers now, following CZU?

It is 100% not true that Cal Fire told anyone to stand down. We ask only that they come into the overall Cal Fire organization. … We are constantly trying to recruit volunteers. Santa Cruz County fire volunteers get 300 hours of official training, and then ongoing training.

It’s not so much mending fences as trying to provide a service and get as many people on board as possible.

A lot has changed in the past 30 or 40 years, this is a litigious society, and we know much more than we used to about best practices.

Nate Armstrong of Cal Fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In what ways might you run the unit differently than your predecessor?

I’ll be going heavy on grants, working with the Fire Safe Council (of Santa Cruz County) and Firewise USA communities. Government grants are available for fire reduction, and we’ve done pretty well.

And the California Conservation Corps, which did a phenomenal job [during CZU]. I’m hoping this year they can become full-time. It’s an awesome program. CDCR (California Department of Corrections) is great, too, but the crews have dwindled [due to] early release programs — they have gone from 192 crews to 50 crews [statewide]. At Ben Lomond camp, we are down to two seasonal hand crews, which is 15 crew members plus a captain.

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We need more personnel for longer periods of time because fire season is getting longer and longer, and we don’t have enough people.

We also have [new equipment]. We have a curtain air burner that was loaned to us that one of our foresters tracked down. Part of a transportable “fire box,” it filters burning organic materials and leaves cleaner smoke. And we have a new masticator that Santa Cruz County Fire owns and Cal Fire has been using. Huge, like an excavator-type tractor, it can move through a forest while crunching through brush.

After the Estrada burn in October, do you plan to change the prescribed burn policy?

I don’t have the ability to change it. These burns are not done lightly. They have a 2-inch-thick plan before they move forward. And so many people want to burn. It’s an important program.

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We did an internal review of the Estrada Fire and we will work on more accurate on-site monitoring and more weather and dryness gauges on-site as well as increased messaging of neighbors.

It’s hard to nail down an exact date … burns will happen. Once all the prep work is done and we’re physically ready to conduct a burn, everything typically comes together very quickly.

Can you expand on fire prevention efforts in Santa Cruz County?

We need to do fuel reduction much longer and more frequently, and we’re really just trying to get people to take care of fuel reduction on their own property, to maintain defensible space. If people would do one or two hours each weekend, especially now in winter … summer is right around the corner. It’s time to give their properties a fighting chance.

Are these rough times leading more people to retire?

The last two years has been very hectic, and we’ve had challenges no one would have expected. People are tired. But a lot of people are just at that age, reaching retirement, so I’m not sure.

I don’t know a time in the last five years it would’ve been easy. It’s extremely challenging. But we have a good team here and we have good community involvement, and we’ll keep chipping away at it as much as we can.

What question would you like to answer?

People often ask, “When will you get more resources?” I would urge them to work through their state legislators. We want that, too!

* * *

One state senator did recently meet with Armstrong and San Lorenzo Valley fire chiefs.

In December, state Sen. John Laird met with County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, Armstrong and the chiefs of Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, Zayante and Felton fire districts.

The districts operate “on a shoestring” and rely heavily on volunteers, so it was good for them to meet with Laird, said JM Brown, spokesman for McPherson. McPherson is co-chair with fellow supervisor Ryan Coonerty of a new CZU committee established in response to the lightning complex grand jury report.

The trickiness of wildfire fighting jurisdiction is evident in Felton, where Felton Fire District’s station is just a couple short blocks from Cal Fire Unit headquarters.

In general, Cal Fire is responsible for fighting fire in the State Responsibility Areas, or SRAs, where neighborhoods fade into wildlands, while the district performs all other fire department duties — and, with understandable enthusiasm, fights wildland fires. And all those roles can rapidly shift in the midst of an emergency.

But it’s largely theoretical in the tight San Lorenzo Valley, where, Armstrong said, “everybody goes to everything.”

The new chief remains upbeat in assessing the big job he’s taken on at an incredibly tough time.

“There’s a lot to do,” he said.