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Sonoma County fire chief wins national acclaim

North Sonoma County Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville has been awarded for his tireless leadership and dedication to wildfire prevention efforts since 2017 Tubbs fire.|

North Sonoma County Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville, already something of a local hero, is being honored as Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year by the 12,000-member International Association of Fire Chiefs network.

But it was only reluctantly that he went to Texas to receive the award this week, given the heat and the drought and Sonoma County’s history.

“It’s the worst time of year to be gone,” he said by phone from San Antonio, Texas, on Wednesday, hours after being honored at the three-day Fire Rescue International Conference there. “It’s our fire season.”

Turbeville, 47, is not particularly interested in fanfare.

A sedate but hard-driving firefighter more at home wearing dusty boots and smudged in soot than in formal uniform, he is all about the work — and plenty of it.

Besides working ostensibly part time as chief of the sprawling north county volunteer district, he is a full-time Cal Fire battalion chief and is much in demand to advise and assist community and neighborhood groups seeking a safer path forward as the risk of extreme fire grows.

But he acknowledged he was grateful for recognition from his peers and the folks back home. He only learned of the surprise nomination about a month ago, after winning, and then kept it a secret, North Sonoma Fire Capt. Joe Stewart said.

“I like helping, and I like making a difference,” said Turbeville, a father of four children whose wife, Anneke Turbeville, is the district’s part-time administrative manager.

The award, he said, is largely about the community “and what we’ve done together.”

Turbeville has degrees in civil engineering and forestry from Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, where he met his wife. He has been in fire service since he was a college student, following in the footsteps of his later father, Dean Turbeville, former chief of Geyserville Fire, which much later coalesced into the north county district.

The trajectory of his career has followed the increase in extreme wildfire behavior around the region over the past decade or more amid rising world temperatures and periods of intense local droughts.

But the “wake-up call,” he said, came in October 2017, when the Tubbs Fire swept from Calistoga to Santa Rosa on a night when the entire region seemed ablaze.

He realized then that fighting fires wasn’t going to be enough, and that the work that was needed was everyone’s job. It reset priorities around the area, as well as his own.

District Director Fred Peterson, then-board president, remembered Turbeville’s shock at what he’d seen and his sober assessment of future challenges.

“He said, ‘Fred, we can’t do the same thing and expect different results,’” Peterson recalled. “And that embarked him on his mission to do what he’s done over the last several years in terms of prevention and getting people involved.”

Even as he helped lead the county’s forces through one wildfire after another since then, Turbeville has mobilized neighborhood groups around the area — some of the most rugged and remote in the county — to collaborate on defensible space projects, evacuation planning and other educational, organizational and preparedness efforts.

He has been a leader in the prescribed fire movement, once declaring it was his “dream job” to “go to work and stop a fire, or go to work and start a fire.”

Turbeville also has promoted pre-attack mapping and other efforts designed to improve access and on-the-ground information for fire crews responding to neighborhoods during emergencies, so they know where gates and access points are, as well as pools, water tanks and other potential assets.

Through dogged effort, pursuit of grants, training and recruitment, he has built a fuels management team for the fire district, which is the only local government agency that has one, Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said.

Last year, Turbeville received the 2021 National Wildfire Mitigation Award from the National Fire Protection Association, the National Organization of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the USDA Forest Service.

“He’s an outstanding leader,” Heine said.

Peterson said he filed the nominating papers with the international chiefs group earlier this year and checked back with their headquarters when he hadn’t heard anything by the time he expected the honor to be announced. He was told that, since COVID has canceled the conference for two years running, the selection committee essentially had to work through three years of nominations.

But Peterson said he told the representative, “If someone other than Marshall gets this award, that person must be able to walk on water.

“When I look at all he’s accomplished, all the pressure he’s been under,” Peterson said.

“He just doesn’t stop,” said Stewart. “I know there’s just tons of fire chiefs out there that do tons of things, but I honestly don’t think there’s one out there in the fire services that does as much.”

Stewart flew to San Antonio to witness Wednesday’s award ceremony when Anneke Turbeville couldn’t make it, saying he wanted to make sure someone was there, despite Turbeville’s hush-hush approach.

“It’s really awe-inspiring to work with him and really see how much he does,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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