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Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner retires after 30 years

Fire Chief Tony Gossner emerged during the 2017 firestorm as a beacon of leadership and reassurance. “That’s painful, still painful. We did everything we could,” he said of the disaster.|

Some men retire and right away cut back on shaving to experiment with post-workaday facial hair. Tony Gossner, Santa Rosa’s departing fire chief, might not go that route, and not just in deference to reservations harbored by his wife, Chris.

Gossner last grew a mustache on a yearly fishing trip with buddies that concluded on the Sunday of Oct. 8, 2017. Shortly after he arrived home from near Mount Lassen, he was abruptly back to work, struggling to grasp the enormity and ferocity of the Tubbs fire.

Gossner, who’s 52 and a 1986 graduate of Sebastopol’s Analy High School, may never hearken back to what that firestorm inflicted on his city and on Sonoma County — 24 people killed, more than 5,300 homes destroyed — without tears returning.

“That’s painful, still painful. We did everything we could,” he said days ago with eyes brimming at his office at Santa Rosa Fire Department headquarters. Now again clean-shaven, he doesn’t need a reborn mustache to act as another reminder of his city’s most catastrophic inferno to date.

Gossner will retire Wednesday, capping a career dedicated almost entirely to serving the people of Santa Rosa. When he started as a firefighter with the city in October of 1990, he was 22 and had trained as a teen volunteer with the Graton Fire Department, then as a full-time firefighter with the state Department of Forestry, then with the city of Mill Valley.

“My dream job was always to work for Santa Rosa,” he said.

As he rose through the ranks of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, his home base was almost always the city’s busiest firehouse, Sonoma Avenue’s Station 1. He was named interim chief on Christmas Day 2013 and became fire chief the following September.

Only a year later, in the summer and fall of 2015, Lake County was ravaged in quick succession by some of the region’s earliest 21st-century megafires. The largest of them, the Valley fire, killed four people, incinerated more than 1,200 homes and torched more than 76,000 acres.

Gossner’s department sent mutual aid to Lake County. Two years later, the wind-driven Tubbs fire roared into Santa Rosa, one of a half dozen major blazes to erupt that night in the region. Santa Rosa residents and their Fire Department needed all the help they could get.

Gossner would emerge amid that disaster, along with others who included then-Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano and then-Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, as a beacon of leadership, candor and reassurance.

“Tony is a big, strong guy, a macho man in a macho profession,” said Coursey, the former Press Democrat newsman who will soon be sworn in as the newest Sonoma County supervisor. “But he led with humanity ... He displayed his vulnerability along with his strength, and that comforted people, and reassured them at a time when we all desperately needed both.”

Coursey recalled when Gossner “talked about the decision he made to order his firefighters to switch away from fighting fires and concentrate on saving lives, and you could hear the anger in his voice that he knew they could not do both. He choked up when he talked about the lives lost that night, and the lives impacted for years to come.”

To friend and decadeslong firefighting colleague Jack Piccinini, it was clear that Gossner took personally what the Tubbs fire did and what more it threatened to do to Santa Rosa.

“It was very emotional for him, but you wouldn’t know it,” said Piccinini, a retired Santa Rosa Fire battalion chief who has volunteered for 40 years with the Sebastopol Fire Department.

Gossner had earlier this year planned to retire in mid-2020, but he decided to stay on another six or seven months. And what happened? The 55,000-acre Walbridge fire that lightning ignited in hills northeast of Jenner and west of Healdsburg this past August — then the Glass fire that in late September and well into October devoured nearly 1,600 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties and forced the evacuations of about 13,000 people from their homes in Santa Rosa.

Piccinini said it occurs to him that the current wildfire reality in California robbed Gossner of being able to ever sit back in the fire chief’s chair “and say, ’This is cool. This is fun.’ ”

Unbelievably, the historic Tubbs fire was quickly eclipsed by even larger, more destructive fires in the region and elsewhere in California.

“Every year now, there’s something else,” he said. “The city of Santa Rosa had 10 engines on the Walbridge fire.”

Beyond the demands of his role as Santa Rosa’s top firefighter, Gossner has fulfilled far-reaching responsibilities as Sonoma County’s area coordinator for the state Office of Emergency Services.

“He has been my go-to person when we’re fighting these regional fires,” said Ben Nichols, Cal Fire’s Santa Rosa-based division chief. “He has always put the residents of the county at the top of his priorities, and he’s made sure the (fire protection) agencies are working together.”

“Tony’s dedication to duty is unparalleled,” he said. “I haven’t met another chief officer that has the commitment that Chief Gossner displays in his taking care of business here in the county and the city of Santa Rosa.”

The dean of Sonoma County’s fire chiefs, 50-year veteran Steve Baxman of the lower Russian River’s Monte Rio Fire Protection District, said Gossner has shone as the regional coordinator charged with keeping all the fire agencies on the same page and informed about essentials such as flame and flood behavior, available firefighting resources and changes in weather.

“He stayed on top of everything,” Baxman said. “He was a great asset to us the last couple of years, with all the disasters we’ve had.”

Admirers observe also that Gossner is just a pleasant person to be around. He said he’s tried to remain upbeat, even in the midst of recurrent fire-borne disaster that has eaten at the quality of life in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.

“I choose that every morning when I wake up I’m going to be in the best mood possible and to move things forward,” he said.

For Gossner, the myriad critical challenges posed by the serial firestorms have come in addition to dealing with tough everyday issues. Among them: Trying to expand the 10-station, 150-employee Santa Rosa Fire Department and its $45 million annual budget when the city’s finances are strained.

“We need to grow,” the chief said. “But it’s expensive. A (new) fire station today is $15 million. And the city has so many needs.”

Gossner and City Hall have grappled also with a federal-court lawsuit by firefighters who claimed they were shorted on overtime pay for years.

As he prepares to retire, Gossner speaks of many lessons learned through the agony of the Tubbs and subsequent fires, and of steps taken to reduce the risk of such calamities in the future.

“We’re in a much better place today than we were in 2017,” he said.

Watchfulness has improved. The state has purchased additional, high-tech firefighting aircraft. Widely scattered fire departments have acted to improve coordination and the sharing of information once a fire is detected.

“There’s been a lot of good things that have happened,” Gossner said. “But the fires haven’t stopped.”

He said residents must do more to keep vegetation and flammable materials away from their homes, and to harden their homes’ resistance to fire.

“There’s a lot of education that is continuous,” he said. “You’re trying to change human nature.”

Forest management and utilities safety endure as stubborn, costly challenges, he noted.

The outgoing chief speaks of being grateful for much, certainly that no firefighters have died in the region’s firestorms. He said the Santa Rosa Fire Department is full of exceptional people he’ll be proud of always, and he’s certain the department will be in good hands under interim chief Scott Westrope, the former deputy chief.

The father of 21-year-old Cole and Brenna, 18, said this feels to be the right time for him to move on. He has no plans to leave Santa Rosa, no plans to grow a retirement mustache.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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