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Fire Chief Mike Garcia: A multi-faceted man running a multi-faceted fire department

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

After a recent downpour, while splashing through puddles on the way to interview Fire Chief Mike Garcia, it occurred to me that he must love when it rains and the risk of fires is low. But that turned out to be a naïve assumption because, of course, fighting fires is only a small part of what firefighters do every day. I should have known. 

Chief Garcia, a bulwark of a man who radiates goodwill, graciously set me straight. 

“If there’s enough of it, rain causes mudslides and floods, so that’s another challenge for us and the community. At the Fire Department, we have to be prepared for any and all disasters. Everything needs to be in balance. When conditions are out of whack, that’s where we come in.”

What a misnomer, then: the Fire Department really should be called something like the “Disaster Mitigation and Risk Management Department that saves human lives on a regular basis and occasionally rescues cats and dogs, usually from drainage pipes. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

Too long, of course, but far more accurate: only 15 percent of calls in 2018 related to fires.

fire chief Garcia

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Fire Chief Mike Garcia

Residents call the Laguna Beach Fire Department an average of slightly under 4,000 times a year. 

“We help residents in many ways, including gas and water leaks, electrical issues, rescues, car accidents, and many other requests for help,” Garcia says. “Each call is different; some are relatively simple medical issues – the majority of our calls are medical emergencies – others may mushroom into a major fire event with dozens of units responding. But each is logged as just one call.”

Fighting fires remains the most dramatic and visible of all LBFD’s activities.

“Our greatest challenges are the vegetation fires that have grown more common and more severe in the last decade,” he says. 

“While there are many rewards to being a firefighter, knowing you’ve made a difference, you’ve saved lives and homes and rescued people in precarious situations, the reality is that you are also witness to some horrific scenes.”

The horror of Paradise

Chief Garcia, Mayor Bob Whalen, and former Emergency Operations Coordinator Jordan Villwock recently visited the town of Paradise or, more accurately, what used to be the town of Paradise. It is rare, the Chief says, for him to visit a post-fire landscape; usually firefighters are in the thick of activities as the fire is burning.

“Complete devastation,” he says. “Such terrible losses. What struck me most was the silence. It was eerie. No flies, no bugs, no birds. No life of any kind. Just carbon and ash. A whole city lost.” 

fire chief family

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Badge-pinning ceremony with daughter Madison, wife Laura, and son Brett; daughter Hailey (not pictured) lives in Arizona

In previous years, camaraderie among the firefighters helped get them through difficult emotions brought on by the horrific sights they’ve seen. 

“The process is more formalized now, with help from mental health professionals, but the support and understanding of peers and the community remains key. The important thing is to communicate and share,” the Chief says. “We need to go through a grieving process. Tell ourselves we did all we could do. We were there to make a difference, and we did. And we will again.”

Garcia says that it is sometimes hard to escape tough memories. “When you serve in a place for a long time, you’re always driving past homes and places where tragedies occurred. The emotions come to the surface. You learn to deal with them, but it’s hard.”

Fire: A blessing and a curse

What is it about fire that so fascinates? Most of us have sat next to a fireplace or campfire, hypnotized by the dance and flicker of flames, and felt the comfort of heat on a cold winter’s night. 

But others have seen their homes burn to the ground, close enough to feel wind-blown ash dust their skin; close enough to experience searing heat; close enough to choke on the smoke from the fire that is torching their every possession, their very history.

“Fire is powerful. It’s unpredictable,” Garcia says. “It brings lifesaving warmth but can also cause death. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

Fire mitigation begins with fire prevention, and that’s a key aspect of Chief Garcia’s job. “Not everyone agrees with all our approaches, but that’s okay. Again, the important thing is to find a balance between what residents feel is important to life here in Laguna, and how best we can implement risk management strategies, such as thinning vegetation and widening roads. 

“We’re all about safety and disaster prevention. Our job is to predict a fire’s path as much as possible, get everyone out safely, and stop the destruction.” 

fire chief ready

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The Fire Department is always ready for action

The Chief grew up in the La Mirada area, where he still lives. 

“I did well in school but always gravitated to the shop classes. I loved welding and woodworking. I wish there was more of a focus on trade schools these days,” he says. 

After several jobs including working as an EMT and paramedic, after chatting to firefighters and going on ride-alongs, Chief Garcia realized that he wanted to be a firefighter himself and took classes at Cal State Long Beach. 

He served 28 years with the Long Beach Fire Department before moving to the Laguna Beach Fire Department in April 2018.

“It was a long haul to get to where I am,” he says. “But it was worth it.”

Many interests, from muscle cars to musicals

The Chief loves classic cars, especially the ‘60s and ‘70s muscle cars. Over the years he has owned a ‘68 Camaro, a ‘57 Thunderbird, and ‘46 and ‘47 panel trucks as well as a Mustang. His son Brett, a sophomore at UCI, currently drives a 1970 El Camino. 

And he’s also a fan of musicals. One year his wife Laura, an emergency room nurse specializing in pediatrics, “dragged” him to see Les Miserables, and unexpectedly the Chief became fond of the theater. 

“It’s good to get season tickets,” he says. “That way you end up going to plays and musicals you didn’t think you’d like, but then you find you do.” 

He and his wife go to the Laguna Playhouse quite often, a highlight being Million Dollar Quartet earlier this year.

The man is a great animal lover. He’s seen bobcats in the wild and loves to camp, boat, ski, and hike. A current goal is to see bald eagles, maybe in Alaska, and he has a hankering to witness the Northern Lights.

fire engine ebike

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Bosch donated an e-bike to LBFD: Chief Garcia is on the far right with

(L-R) Steven Sheffield and Jonathan Weinert from Bosch, Fire Engineer/Paramedic Adam Schulenburg, Firefighter Forrestt Lazicki, Troy Lee of Troy Lee Designs, and Fire Engineer/Paramedic Crissy Teichmann

The family owns many pets: Roxy, a chocolate Lab; Bella, an English Golden Retriever; a couple of cats and some chickens.

“We always find the strays and bring them home,” he says.

Chief Garcia is a huge sports fan, especially of baseball. “I support the Angels and the Dodgers, which people say can’t be done, but I follow the Angels primarily,” he notes. 

Daughter Madison happily works for the Angels’ organization, while daughter Hailey is in marketing in the Phoenix area. 

Chief Garcia says that the transition from firefighter to administration isn’t easy for many firefighters, but that he loves his job with a passion. 

We’re all in this together

“Fighting fires and saving people’s lives offers instant gratification. This job makes for a different kind of gratification. Hearing praise heaped upon my team makes me happy. I love to get feedback about how friendly they are, how professional, what they’ve done to help, and I love to see them grow and succeed in their jobs,” he says. “I’m a sucker for success stories.”

Passion matters a lot to Garcia. “That’s what I love about Laguna,” he says. “This town is filled with passionate people who care so much about Laguna – no matter their different opinions, they really do care about the future of the town,” he says.

“We have the most beautiful beaches, maybe in the world, and gorgeous wilderness areas. At the same time, we’re at high risk for fires, mudslides, earthquakes. We all need to be prepared. That’s my job. And it’s the residents’ job. We’re in this together.”

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

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