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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

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.”

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents the west county, says he’s heard from Baxman over the years about many issues, including river safety, water quality and roadway safety for bike races. That range of concern “is why he’s seen by so many in and out of the fire world as a true leader,” Carrillo says.

Baxman isn’t paid for his work. He gets gas, insurance and maintenance coverage for using his own truck. Over time he has become an acting chief-at-large, repeatedly filling in at west county fire districts — four times for Guerneville-Russian River and once in Bodega Bay — always as a volunteer, as he is now as Russian River operations chief.

He’s at law enforcement calls, day or night, helping with medical needs or navigating deputies through labyrinthine hillside routes. Three Sonoma County Board of Supervisor commendations hang on his dining room wall; two for helping deputies and one for his many years in fire services.

“Steve is always on the front line,” says Dan Mori, a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who has appreciated Baxman’s directions and help for almost 30 years. “He’s a huge asset. I’ve got him on speed dial.”

He knows your family

Over nearly five decades, Baxman has been there when serious fires and disasters struck the west county’s Russian River region: the 1977 fire in downtown Guerneville, the 12,000-acre Creighton Ridge fire of 1978, the cataclysmic Valentine’s Day Russian River flood of 1986 and a run of arson fires in 2015, including the blaze that destroyed Guerneville’s medical clinic.

In between there are coast rescues, missing-hiker searches, car crashes, river drownings. Far more frequent are the small, daily events. No call or need is too minor for Baxman — fallen trees, an abandoned vehicle, removing dead animals, parade traffic control.

He often hears he doesn’t need to answer such calls; he’s the fire chief, leave it to younger firefighters. But with a dwindling volunteer pool in the region, he sees himself as an extra pair of hands.

“I can’t take care of everything,” he says. “But at least I’ll get out there and try.”

Maybe the motivation stems from an adrenaline addiction common in the industry or from long-ago Catholic school lessons, which emphasized helping others. Maybe it’s an exchange for the decades of disability checks for his arthritis. Baxman says he feels a pressing need to make things better.

“I want to be giving not taking,” he says, and it’s been a rewarding way to live.

“I have a life,” Baxman says. “If I got paid it would be a job. It wouldn’t be fun.”

Baxman drives the region in his gray Ram 2500 four-wheel-drive pickup with a winch in the front, emergency lights on top and “Monte Rio Fire” printed in red on the side. Inside is a cacophony of police and fire scanners and oldies radio. If Fleetwood Mac or Billy Joel come on, he turns it up.

He combs the maze of narrow winding roads and hairpin spurs along the steep canyon walls, looking for overgrown vegetation, gates that don’t open and other impediments to a fire engine in a hurry.

Driving through Guerneville and Monte Rio he pauses on side streets to joke with people — typically knowing most everyone’s name and situation. If the chief doesn’t find them they find him, heading toward his truck to chat, pass on a concern or seek advice.

Baxman’s easygoing, confident manner has always been an asset amid the river’s colorful population. He moves seamlessly among residents and vacationers, businessmen, the homeless and the elite of the annual Bohemian Grove encampment, happening now in Monte Rio.

The chief, typically dressed in a faded T-shirt, dark-colored work pants and old black work boots, is for many a comforting, reliable sight. At calls, whether a medical issue or a law enforcement situation, his joshing manner and familiar face often help defuse a difficult scene.

His ability to say “I know who your mother is, knock it off,” also helps, says CHP Officer Theresa Simmons.

Fire savvy

Flames engulfed much of Middletown late Sept. 12 and into early morning, and street by street, propane tanks exploded in the darkness, spreading fire. Firefighters raced to make a stand.

It was the first night of the Valley fire’s rampage through a huge swath of Lake County, devouring communities and eventually killing four people, becoming the third most destructive fire in state history.

Baxman calls that firestorm the most intense firefighting he’s had in 46 years.

He was leading a team of Sonoma County firefighters who rushed to Middletown from nearby Hidden Valley Lake when they realized the town was in the fire’s path. Sometimes joining forces with others, at times on their own, the firefighters did what they could. Split-second tactical decisions were the difference between what to save and what to let burn.

Baxman’s fire savvy and experience in tough situations is well known, and the Monte Rio fire chief is at his best when decisions must be fast and decisive, says Jack Piccinini, chief of Windsor and Rincon Valley fire who worked that night in Middletown alongside Baxman.

“He thrives in that environment. It is structureless. It’s boom, pound away,” says Piccinini, who has more than 40 years of experience fighting local and statewide blazes and has worked often with Baxman at big ones. “Absolutely, he’s a guy I want on a fire.”

Like a quarterback who sees the entire field, leaders at a fire see the blaze and watch the wind, terrain and fire patterns while picking an escape route if things go badly. And they can’t show fear.

“You have to keep your head about you so you’re always looking, always thinking,” Baxman says. “I’ve been to enough fires. You can read the fire.”

Baxman’s aggressive leadership can leave his newer firefighters and some experienced ones on his teams nervous about his tactics and strategy. But firefighter safety is foremost in his mind, he says.

“When I get on a fire, my attitude is everybody is going home,” Baxman says. “We’ve always come home in one piece.”

The Monte Rio chief is one of a dozen Sonoma County fire officials eligible to take a five-engine team of firefighters to California’s large wildland blazes. As the county’s longest‑running and most experienced strike team leader, he’s led dozens of teams since his first wildfire assignment in 1978 at the Creighton Ridge fire in the Cazadero hills.

His short list of “lifetime” blazes — the most difficult and memorable — includes the Valley fire, the 2007 San Bernardino Slide fire, where more than 300 homes were lost, and the 2003 Cedar fire in southern San Diego, the state’s largest at 280,000 acres, with 15 fatalities, including a Novato firefighter, and 2,000 homes lost.

At the Cedar fire, Baxman and his team endured a harrowing three-minute drive through a tunnel of flames along a rural San Diego County highway. More than a dozen years later, Baxman still marvels at how they escaped unscathed. “Hell yes, I was scared,” he says. “None of us are invincible.”

Windsor Fire Capt. Mike Elson has been on at least three Baxman strike teams and earned his leadership stripes working for Baxman. For Elson, a serious situation at a Malibu blaze years ago highlighted Baxman’s calm under pressure.

A group of fire crews became trapped in the hills along Mulholland Drive as flames closed in. Baxman gathered up the firefighters and calmly told them what they would do.

“We are in a bad spot right now. But we’re going to protect ourselves, protect our engines. It’s going to blow over and we’re going to get out of it,” Baxman told the firefighters, Elson recalls. “He reassured us and he made it happen.”

Baxman also eases tension with humor.

In the midst of Middletown during the Valley fire, as Baxman approached a burning home carrying the front end of a hose, a propane tank blew, throwing and spinning the chief about four feet into the air.

A Gold Ridge firefighter rushed up. “Are you OK?”

Still on his backside, Baxman responded. “Was I ever?”

“He’s a laugh a minute,” says Ken Wilke, chairman of the Monte Rio Fire Protection District board of directors and a longtime volunteer. “But don’t think for a moment he doesn’t take any aspect of this seriously.”

Love him or hate him

Speaking his mind is a Baxman trademark.

To him, Sonoma County’s Fire and Emergency Services Department — a largely administrative division that has been subject to political tug-of-war for decades — “should get out of the fire-suppression business.” He’s got no time for fire agency politics and Cal Fire’s huge wildland fire bureaucracy. The lack of improvement in local response plans among neighboring agencies makes his jaw clench.

“He is a very direct, no-bullshit kind of guy,” says Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque. “If he thinks something is screwed up he’ll tell you. But he’ll offer you a solution to fix the problem.”

Baxman acknowledges a desire to stir people up. And being polite isn’t often effective.

Take the county’s complex network of 40 or so fire agencies, which for years has been the topic of various studies seeking improvements with little or no change. If Baxman were king of fire services, he’d fast-forward current efforts and sweep everyone into one huge district to save money, cut duplication and improve service.

He said progress has been hampered by egos of fire chiefs and too much concern about agency identity and territory. “This whole county is ours,” he says. “Let’s all get together.”

A common refrain from chiefs about Baxman is that people love him or hate him or love to hate him. Baxman agrees, suspecting a little professional jealousy or irritation at his lack of decorum and for some, annoyance at being the punchline of his joke. “I do bring out the best and worst in people,” he says.

Several chiefs say they may at times chafe at Baxman’s style, but no one can fault his dedication, abilities and work ethic. And that while they sometimes disagree with the old‑guard chief, they also often agree with his opinions. They just don’t feel as free to comment, saying his volunteer status gives him more license to speak his mind.

Would a paycheck keep Baxman quiet? Doubtful, says the chief.

“Sometimes things have to be said, and that’s how we take care of problems,” Baxman said. “I’m in trouble a lot of the time.”

Baxman’s reputation reached the federal level in 1998 when then-Vice President Al Gore came to the Russian River to see the destruction from a massive mudslide that wiped out a Rio Nido neighborhood and destroyed more than 20 homes.

Baxman was Gore’s tour guide.

“They assigned a Secret Service agent to me,” Baxman recalled, sounding somewhat annoyed. “They were afraid that I might say something inappropriate.”

Part of the Baxman legend is his almost prescient knowledge of calls before they’re reported to 911 and his fast response.

Because he predates 911, many river residents and homeless folks have his number. He often gets called first, before 911 dispatchers. People know he’ll launch, whatever the time. And those who do call 911 often tell the dispatcher to be sure to “send Chief Baxman.”

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville thinks the legend is justified. Turbeville, who supervises three state fire stations in the west county, says that in call after call Baxman “knew about the emergency before the dispatcher knew.

“He knew where the call was. He knew the people. He knew their history and he was there before everybody else,” Turbeville said.

Just like a firefighter on duty, Baxman keeps a pair of fire-resistant turnout pants close by in his home, pushed down and ready for easy entry with a boot set into each leg. With two emergency scanners blasting away day and night on either side of his living room, he’s connected. It takes him maybe 30 seconds, he says, to get into his gear and take off in his truck. And because he lives at a major crossroads in a central river locale, and knows every shortcut, a call is never too far away.

Sonoma County’s emergency dispatchers have their own saying about Baxman, whom they know will show up at calls even if they don’t send him, says Ken Reese, Redcom communications manager.

“We always say Steve Baxman is a geographical oddity. He’s 15 minutes from everywhere.”

King of volunteers

Baxman may take command at big blazes, but when it comes to choosing lunch he pushes the menu across the table to Gabriela Gibson so she can tell him what he can eat. Today at a busy Guerneville restaurant that’s a big plate of shrimp, chicken, beans, lettuce and salsa; no chips, no rice, no tortillas. He holds his weight at 207, down some 45 pounds after a pre-diabetic diagnosis and encouragement from Gibson to give up his four favorites: Mountain Dew, red licorice, carrot cake and ice cream.

Baxman has never been a drinker — he never liked the taste. Add up all of the times he’s helped with the dead or injured at DUI crashes and it’s an easy call.

“I can make an ass of myself sober,” he says. “There’s no future in it.”

Baxman is a lifelong bachelor and Gibson, 54, is his seven‑year significant other. A hospice nurse, she also volunteers as a Monte Rio firefighter, one of six volunteers often out with him on a call. She long ago adjusted to the constant scanner chatter in the home they share.

Some assume Baxman never leaves the river area, and it’s rare, but he and Gibson have traveled extensively in Southeast Asia. That wanderlust sprang from seeing American POWs return from Vietnam during his year in the Air Force. The couple has also visited Cuba and Alaska and parts of Central America.

Travel seems to be the one thing that keeps Baxman from answering calls.

The pacemaker he got two years ago didn’t slow him down. Severe arthritis hasn’t either, despite costing him two toes on his left foot and causing him spine troubles, tilting his posture and restricting his neck movement. The pain, he says, is “all the time. If I stay busy it’s OK.”

In what free time he has, Baxman enjoys online searches to buy used firetrucks. Sometimes they’re for his department or another agency he knows needs a specific type. Sometimes he finds an old one he’ll buy, use in a parade and later sell. His favorite movies are westerns. Politicians seek him out but he won’t give endorsements.

He’s an inveterate volunteer, serving on the Monte Rio parks and recreation board for 25 years, helping shepherd the skate park and Creekside Park at the old Monte Rio School and stage the annual July riverside fireworks fundraiser.

“He’s the guy who gets everything done in town,” says Stephanie Felch, a recent volunteer at Creekside Park. “He’s king of the volunteers.”

A final firefight

While speculation about Baxman’s retirement date is common among residents and fire officials, Baxman isn’t ready.

He’s aiming for four more years, putting him at the 50-year mark as a Monte Rio volunteer firefighter. Then he’ll reassess.

“As long as I’m contributing, I’ll keep going to calls,” he says.

Options for life after firefighting include travel with Gibson and maybe returning to his ranching roots, moving to land where he can have sheep and cattle. Perhaps the place will have a small, volunteer fire department.

Half‑kidding, he says, “I could start over.”

Baxman is clear about his final disposition, which won’t be in the family plot at the old Cooper cemetery on King Ridge Road. Burials, he says, are a waste of land.

When his time comes, he wants an air tanker pilot to fly his ashes over a big blaze. And when the pilot drops a load of bright red fire retardant on the flames far below, he’ll also pour Baxman’s ashes out the cockpit window.

One last time to help put out the fire.

With obvious enthusiasm, Baxman asks, “Isn’t that a great idea?”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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