National honors for fire chief Marshall Turbeville’s mission to protect Sonoma County from wildfires

Northern Sonoma County Fire District head will be honored for his wildfire mitigation efforts.|

Several premier U.S. firefighting organizations will honor one of Sonoma County’s most revered fire chiefs for his quest to make residents safer, better prepared and more self-reliant in the face of increasingly common firestorms.

Marshall Turbeville, chief of the Geyserville-based Northern Sonoma County Fire District and also a Cal Fire battalion chief, will be one of just three American fire-service leaders to receive the 2021 National Wildfire Mitigation Award.

Bestowed by the National Fire Protection Association, the National Organization of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the USDA Forest Service, the honor recognizes distinguished achievement in reducing the threat of death and destruction from wildfire.

The award citation observes that Turbeville’s leadership has been key to innovative fire prevention and preparation initiatives that include educating and mobilizing residents, removing vast amounts of flammable vegetation, refining evacuation and pre-attack planning and aiding in the creation of C.O.P.E., Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies, a grassroots organization to help communities prepare, respond and recover from emergencies.

A statement from the award sponsors declares succinctly, “Marshall Turbeville personifies the consummate firefighting professional.”

The 46-year-old Geyserville native and son of the town’s late fire chief, Dean Turbeville, said he’s most proud of “helping people to reduce their risk.”

He speaks to many Sonoma County residents about hardening and safeguarding their property against wildfire, connecting and engaging in crisis preparation with their neighbors and accepting the imperative of self-reliance amid a widespread emergency.

Turbeville shared that he often tells people living in rural areas of Sonoma County, “When you need a police officer or firefighter the most, they’re probably not going to be there for you.”

“Once the emergency starts,” the chief said, “our options start decreasing. It’s before the emergency starts that we have the most opportunities to mitigate it.”

Take fire-safe precautions and set some emergency plans, Turbeville said, and “you might be saving your own family’s lives, or you might be saving your neighbor’s life.”

He added that since the deadly and massively destructive firestorms of 2017, he has been far from alone in working to help residents of the region become much less vulnerable to such disasters.

“I know I’m being singled out for this. But, really, it’s what everyone is doing,” he said. “It’s a team award in my opinion.”

To receive a national risk-mitigation award means all the more to Turbeville because he knows it was local people, members of C.O.P.E. Northern Sonoma County, who nominated him for the recognition.

“I can’t say enough about Marshall,” said Healdsburg’s Priscilla Abercrombie, board chair of the nonprofit

“This is a gentleman who has exceptional leadership skills, has a vision,” Abercrombie said. “He’s very deeply connected to this community and has gone so far above and beyond his job description.”

“He’s all about action, it’s not about talk and verbiage,” she said, adding that the work Turbeville does allow residents to feel better prepared — “and capable of taking care of ourselves, which is huge.”

It was Abercrombie and C.O.P.E. colleagues Margie Hanselman and Dyan Urban who nominated the fire chief for the Wildfire Mitigation Award.

Said Jim Gore, the supervisor representing northern Sonoma County, “Marshall Turbeville is my hero. I call him the Fire Whisperer.”

Gore described being on fire lines and witnessing firefighters’ astonishment at Turbeville’s tireless work ethic, his encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain and his art at reading and anticipating fire behavior.

“When you hear that from his peers,” the 4th District supervisor said, “you know it’s real.”

Turbeville has worked nonstop to advance fire prevention and preparation, Gore said. “There’s a reason there’s a reverence surrounding him in north county,“ he said.

Fellow fire service leaders in Sonoma County said Turbeville is a force within the profession who truly has distinguished himself through his efforts to protect the region from firestorms.

“He’s a very sharp individual, one of the finest Cal Fire has. And he’s great to deal with,” said the county’s longest serving fire chief, Steve Baxman of the Monte Rio Fire Protection District.

“He’ll listen, he’ll take advice and he’s always fair and equal,” Baxman said. “He takes care of people. And he cares.”

Career firefighter Jack Piccinini, who retired as a battalion chief in Santa Rosa and has volunteered for decades in Sebastopol, said the myriad fire prevention and preparation plans Turbeville put in place following the 2017 disasters didn’t for long sit unused. With the onset of the Kincade fire in 2019 and the Walbridge fire in 2020, Piccinini said, Turbeville’s mitigation work has been roundly tested.

“And to his credit, it passed the test,” he said. Lives and homes that might have been lost were saved.

Turbeville “really has done a great deal,” Piccinini said. “He’s got a passion for all this stuff.”

In addition to Turbeville, 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Awards will go to Jessica Kirby, who works in open-space management in Park City, Utah, and to Courtney Haynes, a fire mitigation specialist in Colorado.

The awards will be presented at the Wildland-Urban Interface Conference of the International Association of Fire Chiefs scheduled for mid-November in Reno.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and

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