Putting out fires: Firehouse incident mars chief’s career
August 3, 2012
Former Chief Tim Fike spent a career putting out fires, but it was a figurative blaze within Nevada County Consolidated Fire District that engulfed his career with the district.
Fike’s recent controversial departure from the strife-wracked district has dominated headlines, but his record as a tactical firefighter continues to earn Fike jobs while garnering support from the community and a few members of his own department.
Fike was officially ousted from the position he held for about 15 years in late June when the Consolidated board of directors voted 6-1 to award Fike a $75,000 severance package.
Fike was involved in a physical altercation in March with Fire Mechanic Kevin Greene. Fike placed one hand around Greene’s neck and made threatening comments, according to a Nevada County Sheriff’s Office report. The gesture was made as a joke, Fike said.
Soon after, Fike submitted his retirement papers.
Subsequently, Local Union 3800 filed a grievance, and the board hired Gary Henslee to conduct an independent investigation into the matter. Directors ultimately agreed to part ways with Fike, who had been the leader of the fire district since 1997.
The investigative report, which The Union obtained after repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, concludes that Fike “exhibited threatening and menacing behavior and placed his hands on the victim in a threatening manner.”
As part of his investigation, Henslee interviewed firefighters and incident witnesses Jared McElhannon and Shawn Entz, current acting Chief David Ray, along with Greene, Fike and Wyatt Howell, president of Local 3800. Henslee concluded Fike violated personnel codes in the incident.
Fike has not commented specifically on the incident in the press, but stands by statements he made to Henslee and NCSO:
Fike did not intend to intimidate or threaten Greene, but was engaging in some of the typical rough-housing that had been part of the Consolidated culture for several years, he told Henslee.
“It was beyond a shock to me to get a phone call the next day … (and learn) the firefighters had made a complaint against me,” Fike said in his interview with Henslee. “I mean, it broke my heart to find out that that’s how (Greene) felt.”
Prior to the official severance in June, Fike had been on paid leave since April 19, according to Board Chairman Warren Knox.
Fike is no longer involved in any capacity with Consolidated, but he is not finished with firefighting.
He recently finished work as incident commander combating the Mill Fire, a 16,000-acre blaze in the Mendocino National Forest, he revealed during a Monday interview.
“That fire made a 5-mile run in about 5 hours,” Fike said. “We got that fire down without anyone suffering a serious injury. A few cases of heat stress and poison oak, but other than that. Nothing.”
Even Fike’s enemies within Consolidated concede that their former chief is a brilliant tactical firefighter.
On Wednesday, Fike was en route to the Salt Creek Fire to help quell a wildland blaze that is burning in portions of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California.
He was an instrumental part of the incident management team in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and he has sat on multiple state boards responsible for homogenizing dispatch language between agencies, among other initiatives.
“I’ve had balanced budgets since 1985,” Fike said regarding his tenure as chief. “I’ve never had anything wrong found in an audit.”
Fike began his official career as a volunteer firefighter, working beside many of the men who eventually would bring him down.
His involvement with the firefighting industry extends even further back.
“I was born and raised in the business,” Fike said. “My father did 30 years with the (U.S.) Forest Service, and I grew up around those ranger stations.”
Fike was the fire chief of the Watt Park Fire Protection District, before it was merged into Consolidated in 1998.
After serving as operations chief for Consolidated for two years, Fike accepted the position of fire chief in 2000.
Since then, the staff of the fire department has doubled, more state-of-the-art equipment has been obtained, and a joint operational agreement was established between Consolidated, Nevada City Fire Department and Grass Valley Fire Department. The agreement has led to improved response times and more fully staffed stations throughout the county, Fike said.
While Fike has moved on to other challenges, he is still reeling from his departure from the district he oversaw for more than a decade.
“Yeah, it hurts, of course it hurts,” Fike said. “I’ve been in the weddings of a lot of these guys, been part of their families. We were very, very close.”
The turbulence in the national, state and local economy has constrained the budgets of public agencies throughout the United States. Consolidated is no different.
As the value of parcels in the county declined, property owners had their properties were reassessed and property taxes declined in proportion.
Fire districts derive the balance of their revenue from property taxes, so the dwindling of Consoldiated’s income, combined with increased costs, meant the district was faced with a fiscal crisis.
While Fike and other Consolidated officials launched an aggressive and ultimately successful campaign to encourage district residents to pass a tax measure that added an average of $52 to annual residential tax bills, discord was growing behind the scenes.
In September 2011, members of Local 3800 – growing dissatisfied with Fike’s communication regarding negotiation points relating to the 2011-12 fiscal year budget – asked to bypass Fike and negotiate directly with the board.
In early February, 27 of the 31 Consolidated firefighters in attendance at a union meeting approved “a vote of no confidence” relating to Fike’s performance as chief. It meant dissatisfaction with his tenure extended beyond one or two disgruntled employees.
The strife between the rank and file and the administration finally boiled over on March 15, the day of the incident.
Moments before Fike encountered Greene in the engine bay at Station 84, Fike witnessed the board of directors ratify the special election results after a very public and tumultuous election process that resulted in triumph for the fire district.
The triumph turned to tragedy in a matter of moments.
When Fike encountered Greene in the engine bay, Fike placed his hand around Greene’s neck and accused him of instigating the no-confidence vote and vowed Greene would not get a raise, Greene said.
Greene’s version of events was confirmed by testimony provided by McElhannon, Entz and Ray in Henslee’s independent investigation.
“After Chief Fike let go of him and continued to walk to the west of the station, out towards his vehicle, you could tell there was a look of, almost a victim look on Kevin’s face,” Entz said in an interview with Henslee. “I’ve seen a lot of victims in my career, and he had the look of being a victim.”
While many firefighters grew weary of Fike’s leadership at the district, many supporters remain.
Joanne Drummond, executive director of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County, recently awarded Fike their annual Volunteer of the Year Award.
“We already miss him at the Fire Safe Council,” Drummond said. “He dedicated personal time and energy on the weekends to volunteer. (The next chief) will have very large shoes to fill.”
Ray is the acting chief, but he has made it clear to the board he does not envision himself as the long-term solution to the chief vacancy, said Knox.
Board chairman Knox also praised Fike, saying that Consolidated is a high-quality fire district due to his administration and leadership.
“Tim deserves the respect and appreciation of this community,” Knox said. “He served it extremely well for several years.”
Robb Penn, a longtime firefighter who withdrew from Local 3900 after becoming disgusted with the “no confidence vote,” also came to Fike’s defense.
“This department has progressed to where it is because of Tim Fike,” Penn said. “Most of the people that were hired are due to him, too. They need to let him go and stop pounding him.”
So why has the balance of firefighters who were hired and brought up in a blossoming fire district turned against their leader?
Acting Fire Chief Ray has a theory.
“(Fike) has been a hands-on fire chief,” Ray told Henslee during their interview. “He is a maverick fire chief and what I mean by that… is that he started out as a volunteer pounding dirt and moved his way all the way up. He has fostered these relationships with some of these guys he has known for 25 years.”
Fike was different from a typical administrative fire chief in that he fought fires shoulder to shoulder with many of the men whom he oversaw and managed, Ray said.
“They were children when they walked into this fire station, and now they are grown, mid-age men,” Ray said. “It comes down to – this is now 2012. Those children that you know aren’t children anymore. They have their own children. You can’t treat them like that anymore.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.