The City of Santa Barbara went outside its own fire department to hire a new fire chief, announcing the appointment of Eric Nickel, who served as Palo Alto’s fire chief the past six years. Nickel, who started his firefighting career as a hot shot in the Angeles National Forest in 1987, will officially start work here January 14.
In brief introductory remarks he made to the City Council Tuesday afternoon, Nickel stressed the crucial importance of community risk reduction. “It’s no secret that climate change is happening,” he stated. Borrowing a line from Governor Jerry Brown, he added that the “extreme climate driven events” sweeping through California should be regarded as “the new abnormal.” He added, “These will continue to happen.”
During a brief interview outside council chambers, Nickel stated that some of Santa Barbara’s wildfire management plans were drafted in 2004. Conditions likely have changed significantly since then, he said; areas where five acres of brush needed to be cleared in 2004, he said, may now require the clearance of 50 acres. Community cooperation, he stressed, was key to any successful risk reduction effort. He added he wanted to collaborate with environmental experts now working at UCSB’s Bren School.
Nickel said he’d worked in the State Legislature with fellow fire chiefs to help secure advance funding when high fire risk conditions prevailed; this, he said, would allow departments to pre-position firefighting resources and equipment in advance of actual fire events. The first community to avail itself of this funding, Nickel noted, was Santa Barbara.
Nickel said the Palo Alto department where he worked was one of the few in the state to run ambulance services. He did not state this is something he would pursue here, but the contract for AMR, the private company providing ambulance services throughout the South Coast, will soon expire, and local fire agencies have made no secret of their interest in taking this over.
Barrel-chested and congenial, Nickel will take over a department long associated with former chief Pat McElroy, who retired in March. Serving as acting chief after McElroy was Lee Waldron, a longtime veteran of the city fire department. McElroy, was a union chief before he ascended the management ladder, becoming one of the most compelling and irresistible non-elected political figures in the South Coast. He had a gift for simplifying complex technical issues into memorable pithy descriptions.
Nickel will have sizable shoes to fill, but while at Palo Alto, he and his department won several statewide commendations for organizational excellence. The son of a college football coach, Nickel said he grew up pretty much “everywhere,” but he considered Irvine home. Initially, he said, he wanted to be a banker but fell into firefighting by accident working as a firefighter for the Forest Service while in college.