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Mantecan stepping down as Cal Fire battalion chief
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Steven Barrett is shown at the scene of a recent forest fire. - photo by Photo Contributed

Steven Barrett has given more than four decades of his life to the fire service.

That’s 40 years of fighting unpredictable forest fires that can shift direction without any indication or notice.

That’s 40 years of trudging up and down the mountains and steep hillsides of California and anywhere else in the Western United States that needed help from the California Department of Forestry and Fire – now known as Cal Fire.

Finding somebody willing to provide 40 years of dedication to anything is a rarity. So as Barrett nears retirement as a battalion chief, The Bulletin caught up with him to find out more about the career he’s walking away from:

What has motivated you to stay in the same job – or at least with the same agency – for more than 40 years? How have your responsibilities changed?

“I’d say the adrenaline rush and the fact there’s a lot of variety in what it is that you do. Cal Fire has a lot of programs that you choose from. Early on in my career I developed an interest in investigations and law enforcement, and in 1990 I became POST Academy certified. In that position I was able to investigate the same way that police investigators do. Now I command a Field Battalion and am in charge of all of Western Stanislaus County and parts of Eastern Santa Clara County. It’s been a long ride.”

Was it something that you always wanted to do?

“It was kind of an accident actually. After coming out of the military I started college, and since I was on the GI Bill I needed to find a job during the summer. I was a helicopter pilot during my time in the military, so when I applied they hired me immediately. There weren’t very many requirements back in those days – 18 and breathing. All of the training that you needed was on the job. And there were a lot of fires and I enjoyed the work. I spent that first summer thinking that I was going to be an aeronautical operator, but then I ended up taking the engineers test and that was that.”

What’s the stressful part of the job?

“Certainly with any emergency activity you’re going to have long days. I think at one time I worked 31 days straight without a day off – from October into November in 1980. You worry about your personnel and somebody getting hurt and you think about how situations could end up becoming difficult without notice.” 

What are some of the more memorable wildland fires you’ve been on? 

“I think the highlight of my career was in 2000 when I took a strike team of five engines into a fire in the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana. They were long days with long hours and we were out there for over a month, smoky conditions each day. There were a lot of Lodgepole Pine trees in the area and they’re extremely dangerous to work under because they fall really easily. I was also on the Panorama Fire in San Bernardino in 1980 which destroyed hundreds of structures. Looking back it’s the most stressful in terms of the loss of life and property.”

You can go on vacation anywhere in the world tomorrow. Where are you going and why?

“I would take my wife Jessie to Germany. Her mother was a German war bride, so I think she’d like to see her roots and where she came from.”

What’s the best thing about doing what it is that you do?

“I never get bored. Even the slow periods, by and large, are very interesting. I get to do what I want with my career. All of those things and my love for the job have kept me at it. I could have retired almost eight years ago but I’m still here.”

Your son Brandon has followed in your footsteps and is now a seasonal firefighter for Cal Fire. Is there a sense of pride in that for you?

“He’s in Paramedic school right now at Sac State and I’m proud of him for doing that. I think it’s going to give him many more options and I’m happy for him. I never really pushed him to do that. I think he got exposed to it and developed an interest and it kind of went from there.  He really loves going out and fighting fires and all of his friends are firefighters and he’s made it apparent that this is what he wants to do. I can’t help but be proud of him for the things that he’s done.”

How would you describe Steven to somebody that never met him?

“Basically a laid back and friendly guy that likes people and enjoys conversations.”

What are your responsibilities?

“It depends on the time of year. Summer is when a lot of the fire activity is, but it’s making sure that the fire engines and equipment are all put back into service and the other duties are all taken care of. It’s overseeing the drivers and the admin unit and tracking the driving records – it’s just like any other occupation where you have to take care of the nuts and the bolts. Along with all of that you have to take care of the people and the training and the scheduling and all of the things that go with the territory.” 

What makes the fire service different from other occupations? What makes it work?

“I think the common theme is that you work closely with the other guys and you have to care about them and it’s all about being loyal. You have to be loyal to them and you have to be able to trust them. I think that working in this organization, if you aren’t a team player you won’t last. I think that’s the common theme. I might fade away after I retire but I’ll still have all of those friends – the people that you meet and get close to throughout the years are exceptional people, and those bonds are what makes it work.”