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Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston has stepped down from his post while on medical leave and plans to remain off-duty until he retires at the end of this year.

Aston, 56, has led the county department since 2008, a period marked by increasingly centralized command of the county's volunteer rural fire companies and efforts to upgrade stations, equipment and training.

The county department oversees 15 volunteer fire companies countywide and also manages emergency services.

Aston has been out on medical leave since mid-July for an injured foot and said he does not expect to return before his retirement, now planned for mid-November to mid-December.

In his absence, Roberta MacIntyre, the assistant chief fire marshal, has been the department's acting director. MacIntyre was named interim chief by County Administrator Veronica Ferguson on Wednesday.

Aston, reached by phone at his home in Coarsegold, north of Fresno, said he was looking forward to spending more time with family, including nine grandchildren. He said he was disappointed a nagging injury — a partial tear of a plantar tendon in his right foot sustained in a training exercise in December, he said — forced him to curtail many field duties and ultimately to step down early.

"It wasn't getting any better," he said, adding that he is likely facing surgery.

In his three-decade career, Aston served as fire chief for the City of Clovis; battalion chief for the Apple Valley Fire Protection District in San Bernadino County and as a firefighter for both the City of Corona and Riverside County.

He announced last November that he intended to retire at the end of this year, a date that extends his Sonoma County service to five years and makes him eligible for a county pension.

Aston credited his "team," including 21 full-time employees, 30 part-time staffers, 350 volunteer firefighters and dozens of volunteer hazardous material responders and radio operators, with "a lot of progress" in improving county fire service.

Driven by a broad 2009 study of county fire services, his tenure has been marked especially by moves to centralize command of the volunteer companies. A related push has come in calls for increased funding to pay for new stations, newer engines and greater training for volunteer firefighters.

"Incrementally, we keep making strides forward," Aston said.

Work on a new $550,000 station in Annapolis is set to kick off this year, while $415,000 has been set aside for a new Lakeville station.

The funding push, including Aston's bid for a greater share of discretionary money for fire services, reportedly has led to friction with top county administrators and elected officials.

Aston on Wednesday stressed the importance of a "sustainable funding source" for county fire services, but denied any tension with county administrators, saying "I really don't want to say anything other than we have a very cooperative relationship."

Ferguson, the county administrator, said Aston's leadership was supported both by the Board of Supervisors and her office.

"I think it was a big challenge he was up against and I think he handled it very well," Ferguson said.

A hiring process to permanently fill the department's chief/director post could wrap up by November.

The county received 70 applications for the position with a salary range of $137,437 to $167,053.

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