“It was June of 2008 and we were standing on the borderline of a two-mile fire line watching a BIG FIRE advance toward Rancho Navarro when suddenly the ‘The Chainsaw Crusader’ appeared out of the black night. He approached a very large burning tree that was threatening to fall and breach the fire line. It was a BIG tree and it was on FIRE. With his chainsaw he cut it down neatly falling it back into the fire and thereby saving Rancho Navarro. He disappeared back into the night without a word. It was awesome” These are the words (more or less) of a young woman describing the actions of our retiring Fire Chief Colin Wilson who helped to save her home during the Lightening Strike Fires in 2008. Sheriff Allman who was also on hand and told us that Colin did not go home once during the first four days of those fires June 21, 22, 23 and 24th. Everybody loves a hero and we’ve got ours.
To hear Colin tell it is a whole different story. Like any person who has achieved the overwhelming respect of his peers he is a study in humility. His advice to his successor Andres Avila with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek- “Take credit for what other people have done.”
Andrea LaCampagne who served as M.C. for the evening was not fooled as she thanked him for creating our entire first rate AVVFD infrastructure with 4 new Anderson Valley fire stations in just 13 years. She said, “You brought us there, you organized it, it’s a wonderful legacy.” Someone mentioned that there were many who thought just getting an old van and painting it red was the way to go in Colin’s early days and that there was plenty of controversy he had to contend with. Far from being a spendthrift however Colin knows ways to get things done for the best price in the best time. Someone mentioned that a Fire Chief has to be confidant, competent, a leader, teacher, diplomat and therapist! As the night rolled on and the plaques piled up (I lost track after the first four) Colin told us that his wife Patti thought that they might need to build a new room to get more wall space.
Valerie Hanelt of the CSD compared the difficulty of Colin dealing with disasters that included an overturned fuel tanker, a missing kayaker on a swollen Navarro River, invisible helicopter blades threatening to chop an unaware man to bits and getting building permits for four buildings in Mendocino County to the rigors of defending his budgets to the various CSD budget committees over, and over and over and over again. She had him unwrap a plaque that will go on the outside of the Boonville Station. Colin said, “This looks suspiciously like a memorial plaque and I’m not quite there yet.”
Luke Wilson talked about how his dad had worked hard to build cooperation between agencies starting with volleyball games together and culminating with Cal Fire moving into the BV station for a couple of years while their new station was under construction. You can’t get much closer than that. He told us how strongly his dad championed live fire trainings to get volunteers over the first shock of facing fire so that when the real thing came along they would be able to respond effectively. In the end Luke choked up a bit as he appreciated his dad’s accomplishments and we all heard Colin tell him, “Come on you can do it” as he has told so many others so many times before. Karen Ottoboni who mentioned that she knew him “When he didn’t have a stomach and did have hair” said, “Colin taught us to take care of ourselves and his vision and dedication made us step up.” Rusty Pronsolino who went to school with Luke started volunteering when he was only 16 years old. He told Colin, “I was hooked from the start, and you have influenced me so much in my life.” Rusty’s mom Sandy told how Rusty would skip a parties on the nights before fire trainings.
Fellow Fire Chief Larry Tunzi said that the best Chiefs come from and love their communities. His humorous aside was “You have been a burr under my saddle for 16 years and I’m glad to see you go!” There were several who commented that meeting times would now be cut in half without Colin there as “He has an opinion on everything.” As far as leadership goes small details can tell you a lot. Andrea told us that Colin always drank milk at any get together because with that white liquid in his glass there would be no thought that he was drinking on the job.
As Colin looked around the packed Apple Hall he remarked that he attends many events where he is surprised how many people he doesn’t know “But I know almost all of you. You are the people who made me a success.” There were many standing ovations during the evening and calls for speech, speech went unheeded. Always a master of timing at the end of the evening Colin began to respond to things people were saying about him often adding thank yous. When he told us that Judy Long was “The heart and soul of the department” he shed a few sweet tears. Finally he started asking people to stand up to be acknowledged. The room was filled with workers that’s for sure. What a bunch of doers. Colin’s party would have been the perfect place to be if a disaster had hit. He even had the families of the workers stand up to be thanked. Herein lies the genius of Colin. He may have been “harsh” to a hapless recruit on occasion but his goal was always to keep everyone safe. Occasionally it is a good idea to wake somebody up especially when it could be a matter of life and death. We have to admit that Colin like other real leaders in our community does not suffer fools gladly and aren’t we glad that he does not?
So some of us plaqued him, some thanked him, hugged him, played music, picked flowers, presented funny presents, teased him and danced with him and even cried a few tears with him. His crews went in together to give he and Patti a $2000 gift card along with a road atlas and a guide of the National Parks (wish they were open…) If only everyone could retire with such a sense of a job well done what a grand world this would be. Why do some step up to assume so much responsibility for the welfare of others as Colin has done and Andres is now doing? We will never know but we can be grateful that they do. Thank you Colin for all you have done.