PORT TOWNSEND — Bret Black hopes to finish out his firefighting career the way he started it: working hand-in-hand with both volunteers and professionals.
“That’s how I started my career — in what we call a combination department — and it’s how I had always hoped to cap my career,” Black said Monday after he accepted an offer to become the new chief of East Jefferson Fire Rescue (EJFR), which has 33 career firefighters and 40 volunteers, according to its 2019 annual report.
Black, 50, has served as chief of the Piedmont Fire Department in Piedmont, Calif., since October 2018. He is set to start in his new role Dec. 1.
“I think everyone in the department is looking forward to getting a chief in place who can take us to the next level and make us a better department all the way around,” said Dave Johnson, chair of the department’s board of directors. “I think that’s what we’re getting with Chief Black.”
Black was one of 22 applicants to replace Jim Walkowski, who announced in March that he would resign effective June 30. Walkowski, who could not be reached Monday, decided to return to the Spokane area, where he had previously worked as an assistant fire chief, so his wife could take a job there, Johnson said.
“He was probably the best chief we’ve ever had,” Johnson said of Walkowski, who was hired in late 2017 to replace Gordon Pomeroy.
After Walkowski’s departure, the board entered into an interlocal agreement in July with North Kitsap Fire & Rescue to have its fire chief, Dan Smith, serve simultaneously as EJFR’s interim chief.
Smith will remain in that role until Black starts in December, Johnson said.
Whereas Walkowski was being paid a salary of more than $158,000 plus benefits, Black will recieve a salary of $162,000 plus benefits. In Piedmont, Black was recieving more than $193,000.
Considering the difference in cost of living between Jefferson County and the east San Francisco Bay area, Black said he feels the compensation is fair.
“For a modest three-bedroom, two-bath home, I think it’s not even half the cost — probably more like a quarter of the cost — of what homes go for in the bay area,” said Black, who plans to move into a short-term rental with his wife, Nimai, over the Thanksgiving weekend.
“It’s a beautiful area,” he said. “We look forward to exploring and getting to know the community before we commit to buying.”
Black, who has spent his entire career in California, will go from managing a city department with a nearly $7 million budget and just more than 1,000 calls per year to a rural regional department with a budget of more than $8.8 million and more than 4,500 calls per year.
“We’re extremely busy because we do everything,” Johnson said. “We can be fighting a wildland fire one minute and the next be in a boat trying to rescue someone in the Sound or using ropes to rescue someone on a cliff. And our closest backups are 45 minutes to an hour away.”
Black said he’s ready for new challenges, such as learning about the department’s water-based operations, especially since Piedmont is a landlocked suburb of Oakland.
“I’ll be excited to learn more about all of this department’s operations once I get on the ground there,” Black said.
Both Johnson and fellow board member David Seabrook said Black will help the department fill some empty middle-management roles and dive into strategic planning.
Seabrook said he’s excited to have Black’s wildland firefighting experience at the ready, as well.
“We’re going to be making sure we are mitigating the wildfire risk in our area as much as we can and helping the community pull together to manage that risk,” Seabrook said.
Black started out as a volunteer in 1994 at the Nicasio Volunteer Fire Department before beginning his professional career with the combined department of Skywalker Ranch Fire Brigade in 1996.
In 1999, he joined the Clovis Fire Department, where he stayed for 19 years and rose to the rank of battallion chief. Black also holds a master of public administration.
In Piedmont, Black has built a reputation for being accessible both to his employees and the community at large, he said. The EJFR board’s hiring committee heard the same thing from Black’s boss, Seabrook said.
Plus, he and Johnson said they were impressed with his collaborative leadership style.
“I put a lot of effort into this vocation and the community I serve,” Black said, “no matter where I am.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at email@example.com.