Chumash Fire Department Chief J.P. Zavalla accepts a thank-you handshake from Santa Lucia District Acting Director Steve Hall, during a ceremony at Figueroa Station on October 27 to commend the department's help during the past several months. | Credit: Courtesy Nik Blaskovich

Mutual aid is a common precept among firefighting agencies, but these past several months found an entire contingent from the Chumash Fire Department staffing the U.S. Forest Services’ Figueroa Mountain station, which was shorthanded. The Chumash department is often called away on calls for mutual aid — 50 sorties to fires in 10 states so far this year — but this one was a staffing duty and closer to home: “This is historically Chumash land,” said J.P. Zavalla, fire chief for the department, “and we have many sacred sites here in the Los Padres National Forest. The Chumash Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service have a common goal of protecting our resources here.”

USFS spokesperson Andrew Madsen said Los Padres narrowly missed its recruitment target for firefighters early in the season, a shortfall that has recurred since 2020. “We consider it to be part of the national trend where millions of folks quit their jobs or pursued other options during the pandemic,” said Madsen, but also due to USFS firefighters being trained and attractive recruits for other, better-paying agencies. “Pulling our Fig Station employees and placing them on other fire suppression modules would not have been possible without the assistance of our partners at Chumash Fire,” he added.

Only a portion of the full Chumash fire department filled in at Figueroa Station during the past several months, said Sean Larsen, media manager for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The crew has 22 members in total, six of whom are part of the Chumash community. The Santa Ynez Band is a federally recognized group and a self-governing sovereign nation based in the Santa Ynez Valley.

“The Chumash engine crew played a critical role this summer,” said Steve Hall, acting director for the USFS Santa Lucia District, during a ceremony on October 27 to thank the engine crews for their work at Figueroa. The Chumash crew’s stint ends this week, but the Forest Service will keep the station staffed, as it has since 1938, Madsen said. Firefighter recruitment has continued, and the numbers have been improving through job-hiring events.

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