Monte Rio Fire Chief Baxman wins North Bay Spirit Award

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The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Mention the name of Monte Rio’s volunteer Fire Chief Steve Baxman to almost anyone in communities along the Russian River and get ready to hear a story.

From missing hikers to river drownings and big fires, Baxman has been a ubiquitous presence during times of need for nearly half a century, causing many to question whether the 66-year-old man ever sleeps.

Brash and unapologetic, standing 6-foot-5 with a white Fu Manchu-like mustache, Baxman has been fighting fires and responding to medical calls for all those years as a volunteer without pay, including four decades as chief of the 45-square-mile fire district between the Sonoma Coast and Guerneville.

“People trust him. They have a lot of faith in him as a person because he is always there,” said Jennifer Neeley, a longtime Guerneville resident and the West County Medical Center’s associate development director. “To see somebody who is a leader who is volunteering like that and being so dependable, it’s pretty extraordinary.”

Neeley can recall the day Baxman happened to drive by when she was stranded with a dead car battery and his steady presence after an arson fire destroyed the Guerneville health center in 2015.

When floodwaters in February inundated communities along the river, Baxman’s cellphone didn’t stop ringing with calls from people asking for his help with anything from delivering marooned people their medications to helping utility workers clear trees and check power lines.

“Baxman is larger than life, he’s almost a mythical figure in the lower Russian River,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “We can’t figure out how he can be everywhere at once.”

Lifelong Monte Rio resident Lee Torr IV, said his father, Lee Torr III, used to teasingly say “watch out for Dr. Baxman” because the ever-present veteran fire chief was at the side of so many community members when they took their last breaths.

Baxman was there when the elder Torr died after a fall in February 2005 at home, having responded to the family’s call for help.

The outcome was better in 2011 when Baxman overheard — on one of the dozens of emergency radio channels he monitors — that a 911 caller had found the younger Torr unconscious on the floor but was having trouble describing the location of the home. Baxman knew the address and immediately called it into dispatch, as he drove straight there. They would later learn Torr had been there for at least a day after falling into a diabetic coma.

“He’s omnipresent,” Torr, 63, said. “He’s always there, no matter where you are.”

Last year, Baxman said he responded to about 1,600 emergency calls — an average of 4.3 each day. Roughly 750 were in the district and the rest involved emergencies when he went beyond his district’s boundaries to help neighboring agencies.

“Monte Rio probably doesn’t realize how good they have it with Steve,” said Dan Northern, a Monte Rio native and career firefighter who trained with Baxman in the days before the 911 system and sirens called them to emergencies. “He doesn’t turn anything down; he goes on every call, every request for help. There’s a blurred line between emergency response and being civic-minded and helping your neighbor.”

Baxman is this month’s North Bay Spirit Award honoree, recognized for his dedication to his community and to the nonprofit fire district that provides a crucial service. The award is a joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, and it was created this year to put a spotlight on people who come up with creative solutions to community problems and go all-in for a cause with a leadership style that inspires others to step up.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Baxman receives no pay, but he gets gas, insurance and maintenance coverage for his own gray Ram 2500 four-wheel-drive pickup with emergency lights and “Monte Rio” on the side. He also gets a unique form of camaraderie with his community and a jolt of adrenaline he admits he needs. His dedication to public safety is driven by a combination of work ethic and restlessness.

“There’s nothing more enjoyable for me than going on these calls,” Baxman said.

Born in Florida, Baxman and his family moved around with his father’s Air Force postings. They eventually settled in west Sonoma County and he attended Cardinal Newman High School. His grandparents were ranchers in Cazadero and then Willow Creek near Jenner.

Baxman studied fire science at Santa Rosa Junior College and ended up volunteering at fire departments in Roseland, Freestone and Monte Rio. He joined the U.S. Air Force but was discharged after about one year with a medical disability from severe arthritis, a condition that has provided him lifetime disability checks and daily pain.

“As long as you stay busy, you’re OK,” Baxman said. “It’s my life.”

Baxman has worked major fires during his volunteer career starting with a 1977 fire in downtown Guerneville and the 12,000-acre Creighton Ridge fire in 1978. He joined strike teams that helped battle the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego that killed 15 people and destroyed 2,000 homes as well as the 2007 San Bernardino Slid fire that burned more than 300 homes.

In 2015 when the Valley fire sparked in the Lake County community of Cobb, he was among a core Sonoma County firefighting force that battled the blaze to save Middletown High School and other parts of the town.

During the 2017 Tubbs fire that sparked near Calistoga, Baxman was among the first line of firefighters rescuing people as the inferno burned into Santa Rosa. A tree crashed onto his truck and smashed a window. Had the tree not fallen when and where it did, he might not have stopped in the road and heard a burned woman’s cries for help.

Legendary for showing up during emergencies with uncanny timing and supernatural speed, Baxman has proved to be a crucial backup for Sonoma County patrol deputies, often working solo in rural areas.

Deputy Dan Mori recalled the day years ago when he was chasing a fugitive but lost sight of him while crossing a creek. Baxman’s voice came over the radio and told Mori he saw the man running, and helped track him down.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’d go to a call and he’s already there, or if I needed help I could call him anytime day or night,” Mori said. “I called him for directions, a gate code, he seemed to know it all.”

Hopkins said his word is gold because he’s proven time and time again that when he asks for government support, the community truly needs it, and she noted he has “zero tolerance for bureaucracy.” In the aftermath of this winter’s flood, Baxman insisted the county move quickly to help remove heaps of appliances dumped near the Monte Rio community center.

“People call him the mayor of Monte Rio but he’s so much more than that; he’s duke, king, lord of the river,” Hopkins said. “He’s a fantastic force for good.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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