From fireman to admin: Former volunteer, fire chief retires in Rough and Ready
The Rough and Ready Fire Department has bid farewell to former Chief Bob Vaughn after 27 years of service.
Vaughn was appointed to the highest position in the department in 2013 but began volunteering with the contingent in the 1990s. The former chief oversaw the transition of the department from primarily being manned by volunteers into one staffed by certified, full-time first responders.
“When I started in the department we were all volunteers wearing jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes during our trainings and on-call,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn said the introduction of more stringent legal requirements for first responders seems to be somewhat aligned with the increased local need for service.
Vaughn was one of 20 volunteers when he started in 1993, and the station averaged 60 calls a year. In 2019, Vaughn said his department received 250 calls — more than could be handled by unpaid volunteers alone.
Prior to hiring a permanent, reliable workforce five years ago, Vaughn was sometimes the only volunteer to respond to an emergency.
That tenacity and commitment is why Vaughn made such an indelible impression on his peers — now part of the department in an administrative context.
Sheridan Loungeway, who now sits on the Rough and Ready Fire Department’s board, started volunteering 31 years ago just before Vaughn arrived.
Loungeway said he has always been struck by Vaughn’s calm, steadfast and hardworking nature.
“He was very soft spoken then, and is a very intelligent man,” Loungeway said.
Vaughn, who grew up in and around Sutter County, said when he first started volunteering, he did so to help out the community and have fun.
“Rough and Ready is still kind of small town America, and there was no paid staff in sight for a long time, so if the volunteers didn’t do it, nobody would,” Vaughn said.
Loungeway said his first fire with Vaughn was the 1994 Trauner Fire, which destroyed 12 homes and a school house. PG&E would eventually be convicted of 739 counts of criminal negligence for not trimming trees located near the county’s power lines, reports state.
Loungeway said he was in the driver’s seat and Vaughn was at the other end of the firetruck’s cab when their “slow rig” was almost trapped by flames moving across the road.
“There was a young rookie between us screaming, ’We’re gonna die,’“ Loungeway said, adding that the trio made up the sole unit that responded to this particular fire, given concurring natural disasters at the time.
Loungeway said Vaughn’s response was brave and sensible.
“He said, ’Well, lieutenant, I don’t mean to assert your authority, but if we don’t get out of here, we are going to burn to death,’” Loungeway explained. “We laughed, put the truck in reverse and he undid the hose.”
Doug Wittler, another volunteer from the 1990s and current fire department board member, said Vaughn’s leadership style was humble, intelligent and “obviously courageous.”
“He went from fireman to administration — that’s a difficult step to make,” Wittler explained. “Instead of fighting a fire, you’re all of a sudden running the department like it’s a business. It took somebody with a certain IQ to be able to make the transition from volunteers to paid staff.”
Wittler said as volunteers, he and Vaughn tag teamed their efforts to mitigate flames and rescue those at risk.
“I had no problem entering a burning building structure with him,” Wittler said, adding that Vaughn’s athleticism equipped him with the reflexes and muscles needed to drag someone from a burning building. “Bob you just trusted that to do his job and if something happened, he would take care of you.”
Vaughn said the transition to a paid first responder workforce was able to take place once the new fire station was constructed in the area.
“It took us almost 15 years to get the new station built in downtown Rough and Ready,” Vaughn said, adding that the project was necessary in part because the engine bays of the old station were too small for the modern firefighter’s engine apparatus. “The old station was a tin barn,” Vaughn explained. “It had a lot of leaks, it was almost 50 years old itself and had no sleeping quarters, so even if you wanted to have paid staff, you couldn’t do it.”
Vaughn said the upgrade included a relocation from the dead end of Rough and Ready Road to a more central spot on Rough and Ready Highway with ample ingresses and egresses.
Vaughn said the new station, paired with a new generator, can also serve as a potential evacuation center for locals in the case of a natural disaster.
Before construction began, the department had saved $1 million dollars. When it came up short mid-construction, Vaughn, who was an assistant chief at the time, wrote the FEMA grant that secured $1.2 million dollars to complete the project.
Vaughn said construction started in 2010, and the department moved in January 2012.
Rough and Ready’s new fire chief is Rob Rosenberger. Wittler said Rosenberger and Vaughn have been reviewing the budget, so his replacement is up to speed come the new fiscal year — and peak fire season.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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