Community Heroes on Alert: Acknowledging The Brave Firefighters of Mill Valley

Dedication. Courage. Integrity. Service. Team player. These are the distinctive traits that define what it takes to proudly serve in the fire service. Our firefighters are not only essential workers, they are vital members of our community symbolizing hope and protection. They help both people and animals in all kinds of emergencies and teach us how to be safe. They heroically battle blazes and rescue people every day from dangerous situations. And they give back with acts of kindness daily. Their job is dirty, physically challenging and mentally exhausting, yet always very rewarding knowing they are helping others.

Mill Valley Living is honored to highlight and give thanks to all of the firefighters in our community and around the world. To help us all gain a more thorough understanding of the infrastructure, collaborative efforts, fire prevention protocols and the latest, vital community preparedness information, we’d like to introduce one of Southern Marin Fire District’s Battalion Chiefs, Matt Barnes. As we arrived to interview Matt, multiple engines were headed out on a call. Always on alert, we knew our time was limited with Matt so we were incredibly grateful for the time he gave us to share his tried and true insights and experience with our readers.

Matt Barnes has been courageously battling fires for the past 27 years at the Southern Marin Fire District, stoically situated atop Strawberry with our majestic Mount Tam and bustling Richardson Bay in its sights. Matt and his wife, Nicole, have lived in nearby Novato for 22 years. They have 2 children — a son, Dawson, 17, a senior at Marin Catholic aspiring to play Lacrosse in college; and a daughter, Mckenzie, a Marin Catholic graduate, studying Nursing at the University of Nevada, Reno. His two Labradoodles, Rocco and Harli man the fort when he is away on duty.

The Southern Marin Fire District (SMFD) serves the communities of Tamalpais Valley, Almonte, Homestead Valley, Alto, Strawberry, ¼ of Tiburon, the city of Sausalito, the City of Mill Valley, Fort Baker and the Marin Headlands. SMFD encompasses fire suppression, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Technical Rescue, Hazardous Materials, and Maritime Emergencies. Its Dive Team, originally composed of multiple fire and law agencies, is now fully staffed by SMFD personnel and considered a Bay Area-wide asset. Its fireboat, “Liberty”, a 34-foot Metalcraft twin jet aluminum vessel capable of delivering 1500 gallons of water per minute, provides emergency services to the navigable waterways on the southernmost tip of Marin County and five nautical miles off the coastline. The rescue swimmers conduct emergency operations on the beaches, bay and inland waterways throughout Marin, averaging one water rescue every 15 days. The rescue swimmers operate rescue longboards, jet skis, inflatable rescue boats, helicopters and the fireboat.

The District covers 20.5 square miles, a population of approximately 26,175 and over 14,100 homes and commercial properties. The District shares Administrative Chief Officers and Battalion Chiefs with the City of Mill Valley, accounting for one Fire Chief, three Administrative Chiefs, four Battalion Chiefs and a Fire Prevention Division in Mill Valley and Southern Marin. In terms of rank structure, a firefighter and/or a Firefighter Paramedic is entry-level; the firefighter driving the truck is the engineer; and the firefighter in charge of the crew is the Captain. Typically, in Marin County there are three firefighters per engine and two firefighters on an ambulance, one of which is a paramedic. The firehouse is run by the captain who is in charge of the crew at his station Meanwhile, a Battalion Chief oversees multiple firehouses to which the various captains report. Matt oversees five stations and is the first chief officer to respond and assist the Marin County Fire Department Stations of Marin City and Throckmorton. Matt’s role is to provide command, and control, oversight, and supervision for complex incidents where multiple resources respond such as vehicle rollover accidents, technical rescues, structure fires, or wildland fires.

While it’s naturally easy to appreciate Matt and his crew, Matt reminded us of the importance of their very robust fire prevention division which is aggressively trying to mitigate a significant vegetation and fuels problem in Marin. The grasses are too high and the brush is too dense. Mill Valley is a mountainous area with Mount Tam’s dense brush looming in its backyard. It is critical to acknowledge and educate the community about the area’s extremely high fire danger. Think of how many red flag warning alerts you may have received on your phone this past month. Thankfully, Southern Marin Fire is in the process of completing a tremendous amount of fuel removal in careful anticipation of the very real threat of a major fire event in Mill Valley and elsewhere. Their goal is to rapidly extinguish such a threat of fire and prevent the spread to more dense brush that may be close to structures and houses, to avoid the utter devastation and loss we’ve all seen in Northern California since 2017.

Concurrently, all Marin County fire agencies have wisely collaborated to form a coalition to advance this process of fuel reduction and mitigation known as the Marin County Wildfire Prevention Authority, building Fireise communities to educate neighborhoods and our citizens for early evacuation preparation, along with strategies for them to protect their homes. This includes cutting down dense vegetation and ladder fuels, like low-lying trees that typically travel from the ground all the way up to the eaves of structures and building fire breaks throughout Marin County. In fact, one of their most significant challenges is preventing the fires from getting into attic spaces due to wayward embers, given the lack of adequate resources to fight every fire, such as those sadly witnessed with the North Bay fires. Early notification to Mill Valley citizens remains one of the fire service’s top strategies to prevent a significant fire event: Reverse 911, Nixel, and LRAD, a system of long-range acoustic devices to warn our citizens currently being installed in Marin are some examples. Citizen App, keeping us safe and informed, recently went live in Marin. Not only will these safeguards alert Mill Valley residents with sirens and early notification, they will also provide much-needed direction on the spot. The biggest challenge is accessing areas where residents are trying to flee, much like the CampFire predicament in Paradise in 2018. Matt could not stress enough how critical evacuation procedures are. “If we can get people out of the area prior to them being affected by the fire, then we can get in there faster and more efficiently and put the fires out.”

Matt also emphasized the importance of educating our youth about fire safety. Younger children are encouraged to get on board with being safe around cooking equipment, to refrain from playing with matches, and to ensure they have mapped out an exit plan. Then, as kids grow older, they steer them toward gaining awareness of the potential for a significant wildland fire.

As we continued our informative discussion with Matt, Captain Manny Medeiros arrived for duty at which point our lab’s (mine and MVL Living Publisher, Tami Larson’s) — Buster and Temba — immediately gravitated towards him, blatantly ignoring the special treats we brought to occupy them during the interview. It was clear to see the respect and gratitude even our loyal dogs instinctively felt.

Matt later reminded us that the Woodward fire, most likely caused by a rare dry lightning event, was still burning in West Marin because the forest there has not been touched in 100 years! “There are places in West Marin people have never set foot on due to the extreme density of trees and brush”, Matt said. Remember, two years ago when 58 acres burned near Muir Beach? Global warming is even affecting our coastline, compounded by an extreme lack of rain. We are on track for a significant drought as we see fuel moisture levels in our vegetation at the worst levels ever seen… essentially a “tinderbox”, according to Matt. He explained that grasses are taller now because of our current environmental climate issues. The grasses absorb just enough water from the marine layer before heating up, and then drying out and growing taller — two to three times higher this season to heights reaching eight feet. Add to that the significant winds, and you’ve got an undeniable ignition source. As Matt reiterated, “It’s like a freight train. We’re seeing tornado-like winds these days”. The night of those recent dry lightning strikes, Matt left his home and didn’t return home for three weeks.

Every year during wildland fire season, a number of firefighters assist other agencies throughout California and Oregon, fighting some of the major fires in areas lacking in resources. Through the California Master system, they provide fire fighting forces as well as overhead positions that tackle geographical areas and provide strategic tactics, supervision and oversight to the ground forces. Matt left for Redding this past July, returned home for a couple of days until the Lightning Complex fire broke out, then returned for a day before heading out once again to Santa Clara for two weeks. He was back home for a few days then on to Covelo near Mendocino for yet another lightning fire, finally landing in Santa Rosa and Sonoma to battle there.

As Matt reflected on his experiences of late, he revealed that there is some benefit to his time served, because as a longtime firefighter, “you gain unparalleled, firsthand experience and knowledge and you directly witness how the fires burn; so when and if Mount Tam burns, all of the firefighters who have had the opportunity to serve other areas can bring that expertise back to save lives, protect properties and help with evacuations.” Since 2017, Matt had never before seen 100 mph hour winds coming down on the firefront, causing such destruction. “In 2017, to witness a fire jump eight lanes across Highway 101 and burn the community of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, it’s shocking and humbling.” I don’t think you’re ever not scared.” And I think that is healthy. We’ve been in positions where houses are burning down all around us and trees are falling down. If anyone ever says they’re not scared, they’re probably lying. I signed up to serve and learn how to serve and protect our communities 27 years ago. The unfortunate reality is we’re getting to do what we’re trained to do. But it also helps bring home those experiences so that if and when Mount Tam burns, we will be so much better prepared. My job as a chief officer is to make sure the people working for me are as safe and effective as possible. The only way to do that is to experience some of the things I have experienced.”

When we asked Matt what he wants the community to really understand, he was quite clear on the absolute importance of self-preparation. That means when fire weather is upon us, to please watch the news, pay attention to the weather channel, the NOAA website of the National Weather Service and to listen to the radio, and be connected with the many early notification systems in Mill Valley and Marin County. Anytime in May through Christmas, he urges us all to please pay attention to the weather. Having as much early warning to evacuate is the most critical. “Losing homes and valuables is replaceable but we all know people are irreplaceable”. We all love where we live, sandwiched within the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tam, but with so many trees and natural vegetation surrounding us, although we can’t fully eliminate the fire problem, we can actually give back to our firefighters by doing our best to remain steadfastly on alert and continue to educate ourselves in preventative measures so we may continue to enjoy our vibrant community and stunning surroundings. Matt went on to tell us to “Never give up on your dream”…his message to our children who may one day aspire to be a firefighter. Throw in the incredible sense of camaraderie in the firehouse, team-first mindset, the delicious meals, advice sessions and friendship….as Matt said, “It’s like working and living with your own self-proclaimed personal doctors, lawyers, therapists and psychologists! It can be pretty funny at times getting firehouse advice, but for the most part we are all trying to help each other just as much as we are trying to help the communities we serve. We are a great big family and I wouldn’t trade this job for any other!”

This article originally appeared in Mill Valley Living.