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.
What they say about Steve Baxman
“I love Steve. He’s our local hero. I jokingly say he sleeps with his boots on. He’s always ready to come out and take care of people.”
Diane Barth, longtime Monte Rio resident
“He’s no stranger to controversy. I’ve defended him a number of times. (But) I tell people if you’re the one who goes over a cliff or find yourself in a perilous situation of any kind, he’s the face you want to see.”
Andy Pforsich, former Gold Ridge fire chief
“As good or bad or difficult as some of the calls might be, he finds a way to lighten the mood. He doesn’t take away from the seriousness, but he lessens the heartache of people involved, patients and responders.”
Sean Grinnell, Bodega Bay fire chief
“I think my brother has done a tremendous amount of good but he doesn’t do this alone. He has a wonderful supporting cast that never gets any credit.”
Deanna Baxman, retired Cal Fire division chief
“Sometimes you have to realize when politically you have to watch what you say. Steve doesn’t care.”
Dan George, Gold Ridge fire chief
“It’s very helpful when Steve shows up. He can keep a crazy situation calm. If we get a call at three in the morning chances are he’s there. I don’t think the guy sleeps.”
Dan Mori, Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy
“Some people love to hate him. But they call him, not 911. What does that tell you?”
Max Ming, Russian River fire chief
“He’s a true legend. I don’t know what he’s made of but he’s definitely made of something else.”
Efren Carrillo, Sonoma County supervisor
“He can never be replaced. He’s been doing it over 40 years now. No one can fill those shoes.”
Marshall Turbeville, Cal Fire battalion chief
“He’s a character. It leads people to not think he is the real deal. He is the real deal. He’s one of the legends of Sonoma County.”
Jack Piccinini, chief of Windsor and Rincon Valley fire districts
“He’s not talking out of the side of his mouth. You get what’s in front of you. I think he’s been a remarkable resource for the county.”
Ray Mulas, Schell‑Vista fire chief