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20 years of service

When the 49er Fire roared through Nevada County 20 years ago today, Boyd Johnson decided to join his community’s fire department, despite his lack of experience.

“I never thought of (firefighting) until the 49er Fire slapped me in the face,” Johnson recalled.

After 20 years with the North San Juan Fire Protection District, Johnson, 58, is stepping down from his post as fire chief. His contract with the county ends in December.



Johnson is the longest running chief in the community’s volunteer fire department history and responds to 80 percent of the community’s calls, according to Ed Beckenbach, the district’s board chair.

“We have been truly blessed. We are not going to be able to replace him,” Beckenbach said.




On Tuesday, the county board of supervisors recognized Johnson for his years of service with a framed proclamation and a round of handshakes. Friends, family and fire officials crowded the board chambers in support of their fire chief and two decades of devoted service with little to no pay.

When Johnson and eight other North San Juan residents volunteered at their small local fire department two decades ago, it was the largest influx of firefighters ever.

“It shook the awareness of people,” Johnson said of the fire that destroyed 33,500 acres and 500 structures.

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Next week, the board will begin planning its job search for a successor at its 7 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 16.

From 1988 to 1994 Johnson worked as a volunteer firefighter, before becoming assistant chief and later chief in 1995.

During his time with the department, it has grown from 12 to 25 firefighters, has acquired state-of-the-art equipment and three new fire engines.

The fire department was formed in 1862. Recruiting and retaining volunteers is a constant challenge.

“Running a volunteer anything is very like herding cats,” Beckenbach said.

Firefighters such as Al Hoffmeyer, an assistant chief who has worked alongside Johnson for 19 years, remembers when firefighters didn’t have pants that fit and leaky water valves were held together with rags.

“He’s brought North San Juan back from rags to riches. We wouldn’t be where we are without him,” Hoffmeyer said.

“Our firefighters are trained like paid professionals,” said Sharon Beckenbach, part-time office secretary.

Response time to emergency calls in the 70 square mile district riddled with dirt roads has been shortened to nine minutes during Johnson’s tenure.

Firefighters respond from their homes with their emergency medical bags packed by the door.

Being a firefighter means being on call day or night. Last Friday, Johnson woke up at 2:30 a.m. to battle a fire that was burning in a dark forest of the Yuba River canyon.

“It’s 24-7 in a way. It’s at least a full-time job. You can’t go home and forget it,” Johnson said.

His daughter, Freya, grew up with a father who was always chasing a fire. The day she was born, her dad recalls missing a fire on Jungle Trail below the spiritual center, Ananda.

As a fire chief, Johnson receives a meager stipend of $1,500 a month. His wife, Ayse, is the breadwinner of the family as the director of the breast imaging center at the hospital.

Johnson has supplemented his pay over the years by teaching CPR and First Aid at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, working as a dispatch for the Sheriff’s Office and teaching hazardous materials workshops.

“I’ve cobbled together a number of things,” Johnson said. The rewards of gratitude he gets from the community kept him coming back.

“Community support goes a long way,” he said.

Johnson says he’s not going anywhere and will continue to volunteer at the fire department.

“This is a huge ongoing issue for our lives here and probably forever,” Johnson said.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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