Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, the Russian River’s indomitable force
Flames appeared out the front of Guerneville's downtown medical clinic as the first fire engine arrived.
Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, in his pickup, pulled up just behind the Guerneville engine and as the highest-ranking fireman, took control. He sent firefighters inside and up ladders to the roof while others tried to salvage medical supplies.
Fire officials suspect someone set the Dec. 26, middle-of-the-night blaze. Six fire agencies eventually responded and kept it from spreading but couldn't save the center.
The loss was personal for Baxman.
“I go there myself,” Baxman said. “Like most calls on the river we know people involved. It's always more personal because it's a part of our neighborhood and our community.”
The Russian River corridor has been Baxman's home for almost half a century. The volunteer fire chief is considered a public service institution, de facto ambassador of the west county and the unofficial mayor of Monte Rio.
Indomitable and 6-foot-5, Baxman now has a snow-white head of hair and Fu Manchu-like mustache to match, with a tiny earring stud in one earlobe. The 63-year-old reigns in the region as an unprecedented force, responding to about 1,200 calls a year throughout the 100-or-so square-mile area.
His legendary ability to arrive first to a call has led some to wonder whether he sleeps with his boots on. His clowning humor masks how seriously he takes his role, whether it is fighting fires or helping deputies find bodies in the river or marijuana farms hidden in the hills.
He is a chief many people love and others find an exasperating, relentless teaser who ignores political correctness. Some consider the old-school, do-it-himself fire chief a local hero, while others call him a lone ranger.
Baxman knows his mouth and bend-the-rules reputation get him into trouble, but shrugs it off.
He's doing what he loves - taking care of his community - with an unflagging enthusiasm fueled by each day's possibilities.
“Isn't this a blast?” he asks on a recent day while driving down a steep curving shortcut from upper Old Cazadero Road to the valley. “Isn't this fun?”
“I've got him on speed dial”
Veterans say the desire to be a firefighter is like an sickness that won't let go. It hit Steve Baxman early.
It started in Hawaii where his father was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base. The youngster Baxman hung out at the base fire station where firefighters let him crawl on the trucks.
“His dedication has been there since he was a little kid,” says Deanna Baxman, one of Baxman's five siblings and one of two he mentored into firefighting. “It's still there at age 63. I am not sure he can give it up.”
The Baxmans eventually settled in west Sonoma County, joining extended family, including grandparents who were ranchers in Cazadero and later Willow Creek near Jenner. Baxman attended Cardinal Newman High School. He never fit in at the private school with his less-than-affluent roots and says he lost interest. His grades fell and his mouthiness didn't help, earning him a reputation with teachers and coaches. One counselor told the young Baxman he'd likely land in jail.
After graduating in 1970 he started classes, including fire science, at Santa Rosa Junior College.
His interest in firefighting soon had him volunteering in Roseland after classes. On weekends and during school breaks he helped out in Monte Rio and Freestone. Each department offered different lessons. Roseland taught him tactics and offered full safety gear. Freestone's veteran volunteers handed him a hose, maybe a helmet, and pointed him toward the fire.
He loved the drills, the calls and the camaraderie.
In 1972, just shy of earning his associate's degree, he decided to follow his father's career in the U.S. Air Force. But he was discharged after a year with a medical disability from severe arthritis. The condition, which earned him lifetime disability checks from the government, continues to cause daily pain.
He resumed volunteering as a firefighter in Monte Rio and drove a tow truck for about 35 years.
He was promoted to assistant fire chief in 1979. Seven years later, when volunteer Chief Emil Alberigi retired after 20 years, Baxman became chief of Monte Rio's 45-square-mile district, which now includes Jenner. It's a role he says he never aspired to.
“I just wanted to fight fires,” he said.
Yet Baxman's hands-on philosophy, nurtured by longtime Russian River state forestry fire boss Ed Poe, allowed his role to expand into one where he responds not just to fires, but to more of the community's needs. “We're not a fire department,” Baxman says. “We're a public service agency.”