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Washington gets fire chief

A 17-year firefighting veteran has been chosen to lead the town of Washington’s turmoil-plagued fire department – on an interim basis.

Mike Stewart, the 38-year-old new chief, is an engineer with the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District.

Stewart was raised in Washington and is the son of Judi Stewart, the president of the Washington County Water District board, which runs the fire department.



“I have a vested interest in the community,” Mike Stewart said Tuesday.

The selection of the new chief, who, like the other members of the department, will not be paid, caps a turbulent five weeks for the department.




Former Fire Chief Mervin Lee was fired by the water board after an audit of the department by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that none of the department’s equipment was capable of responding to fires or medical calls, and cited a lack of financial and operational documentation.

One week later, on Aug. 3, 12 of 14 volunteer firefighters walked out in protest of the firing at a board meeting. Several of those who left agreed to hold off their resignations, and the department now has six volunteers, board member Lyla Tracy said.

Board members said they had a legal obligation to fire Lee and restructure the fire department because they would be personally liable if a firefighter or accident victim were hurt due to the lack of proper equipment or training.

Nonetheless, many of the town’s residents defended Lee and demanded that he be reinstated.

“Everyone loves our community, and this community does not revolve around one person,” Tracy said Tuesday.

Stewart was one of three people who applied for the chief position at the department. He said it was his idea – not his mother’s. The other applicants were a Washington resident with no firefighting experience and a volunteer firefighter within the department.

“There is some discord that (Stewart) does not live here -but he is the best-trained … applicant we had,” Tracy said.

The new chief will have many responsibilities in getting the department back on track, including working on a shoestring budget.

“There are some serious financial issues,” Stewart said.

A large focus will be placed on securing donations and grants.

CDF is currently helping the department apply for a $6,000 grant for medical supplies through the federal government. Four emergency medical technician bags have been purchased with money from a Homeland Security Grant for first responders, Nevada County Emergency Services Program Manager Tom Coburn said in a letter to the county’s Board of Supervisors. Coburn also said in the letter that the Office of Emergency Services received a letter requesting the temporary use of an engine, while the Washington department’s engine is replaced.

A “state of emergency” in Washington, declared by the Board of Supervisors in early August, was expected to stay in effect until the current firefighters commit to continue to respond and work under the new chief. The district will continue to be covered by CDF, the U.S. Forest Service and the Nevada County Consolidated Fire Department.

Stewart will also be responsible for finding and training a permanent chief for the department.

“We hope that someone will come forward,” Tracy said.

The new chief, who was a volunteer firefighter for the department for four years – most recently in 2001 – said many people in the small community are not sure what the town needs from the fire department.

“The idea is to train the firefighters and the board,” he said. “It is going to be an education for everyone up there.”

Although he will keep his full-time job with Nevada County Consolidated, he said it will not interfere with the temporary job.

“Many firefighters have volunteer positions with other departments,” he said

He will retain his chief’s position “at the water board’s discretion,” he said. “However long it takes to accomplish the board’s goals.”


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