After years of fighting fires, recently retired fire chief Tony Clarabut will be honored by the Nevada County Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Council with the Public Safety Commitment Award — a recognition he himself has presented numerous times over the years at the annual Red Light Ball.
Clarabut retired from a 35-year career with Cal Fire in 2005, the majority of which was spent in Nevada County. Though he had no intention of returning to work, he nevertheless answered the call to serve as fire chief for the city of Ukiah. He was then asked to head the department in Grass Valley.
“It felt like I was coming home,” he said. “All the local fire chiefs I had worked with previously were still there. It’s not a good department, it’s a great department, with great people. I can’t think of a better way to end my career.”
Clarabut started that career at the age of 17, when he began working with Cal Fire three days out of high school. He switched majors from math to forestry, knowing within weeks that fire service and public safety was his true calling.
Clarabut’s achievements and contributions through four decades of service are many. He held positions as a fire apparatus engineer and as an engine and helicopter captain on the North Coast before being promoted to battalion chief in Nevada County in 1983.
In addition to his fire suppression responsibilities, he co-wrote Nevada County’s first fire protection development standards, was instrumental in the formation of the Nevada County Fire Safe Council and chaired the committee that prepared Nevada County’s initial fire plan.
In his eyes, one of his biggest accomplishments was the growth of the Higgins Fire District.
As chief officer through Cal Fire, he took the small organization of volunteers and grew it to an agency with three stations, and though he acknowledges their current struggles, it was once thriving and provided a high level of services to the area under his watch.
Clarabut is also recognized for his efforts to bring the community and fire agencies together to provide a higher level of service.
“We don’t give this award out lightly,” said Bill Drown of the Fire Protection Council.
“The board has strict criteria. He’s dedicated his life to the community, and we wanted to honor him for all his hard work.”
Community is just one of the many aspects of the job Clarabut embraced. He also thrived from the unpredictability.
One minute he’d be doing paperwork, and 30 minutes later, he’d be on his way to Southern California, leading an effort to fight a flood or hazardous materials incident.
“There’s high expectation on the fire service, and we’ve been up to the task,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed being part of that.”
After working with thousands of firefighters and officials through the years, Clarabut noted that teamwork and camaraderie run strong in his profession, especially with those working on the front line. It’s one of many things that drew him to public service (his father was a CHP officer). It’s a culture, he says, that’s particularly strong in Nevada County.
“Everybody in the fire services is very enthusiastic about their job,” Clarabut said. “They’re out there and want to do the best all the time. It’s a good feeling to be a part of a group like that.”
Katrina Paz is a local freelance writer.