The CAL FIRE Mendocino Unit is one of the largest in Northern California with six battalions, approximately 125 career firefighters, and another 200 seasonal personnel. These men and women staff ten fire stations tasked with the prevention and suppression of fire throughout all four corners of the county.
Last month, in a quiet swearing-in ceremony, a 31-year veteran of the state firefighting agency Luke Kendall was sworn in as the new Mendocino Unit Chief, taking command of a public safety institution that has proven a mainstay in the county’s firefighting efforts.
We spoke with Chief Kendall about his new role, his many years of experience, and his plans for enhancing CAL FIRE in Mendocino County.
For those that might be wondering, yes, Chief Luke Kendall is the younger brother of Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall. The Kendall clan grew up in Covelo where Chief Kendall said he spent the first twenty-one years of his life before moving to Chico for college.
Commenting on becoming the CAL FIRE Chief of his native county, Captain Kendall said, “That’s the greatest thing. It’s pretty cool to begin my career in Mendocino County, leave, and then return to serve the community I was raised in.”
Starting with CAL FIRE in 1991, Chief Kendall worked for his first fifteen years throughout Mendocino County. He was a firefighter on the coast, an engineer in Boonville and Ukiah, and then worked as a captain in Covelo. In 2006, Chief Kendall was transferred to Siskiyou County where he worked as a pre-fire engineer and completed Peace Officer Standards and Training to serve within CAL FIRE’s law enforcement apparatus. Before being hired on as Mendocino Unit’s Chief, Chief Kendall had been serving as the Division Chief at Deadwood Camp.
Chief Kendall told us he took the helm of CAL FIRE’s Mendocino Unit after previous Chief George Gonzalez “went out on injury” earlier this year. His initial hire is a limited-term, but Chief Kendall said, “I’m sure it will become permanent as it works through the process.”
Chief Kendall’s role as the Unit Chief consists of working to manage and provide leadership to all of the CAL FIRE resources within Mendocino County.
Chief Kendall described his mission as Chief saying, “You guys as citizens pay us a great wage to do our job, and it is my job to make sure CAL FIRE has the tools, training, and trust to get fires out.”
As he begins his tenure as fire chief, Kendall said his biggest goal is to collaborate with local fire chiefs and local emergency services “to make sure we’re doing our part in the community.” He emphasized building relationships with emergency services county-wide because “we rely heavily on mutual and automatic aid. Not just with fire departments, but with the local police chiefs and sheriff’s office, it’s a collaborative effort.
Having been on the job less than a month, Chief Kendall said he has yet to meet with local fire chiefs but will next week at the Fire Chiefs Meeting. “That’ll be the time to introduce myself to the community. Fifteen years ago I knew them all. Now, there’s a lot of new faces.”
Chief Kendall intends to message heavily on the preventative efforts that are necessary to mitigate the pattern of destructive fires that have swept Mendocino County in recent years.
A key strategy CAL FIRE has identified to mitigate these destructive wildfires is fuel management. Chief Kendall told us that the task has proven challenging as the agency navigated environmental requirements and a declining pool of crews, often populated by inmate fire crews which have decreased in number as California has worked to decrease the state’s prison population. Also, as the county’s fire season “comes on earlier and leaves later”, CAL FIRE is engaged with active firefighting longer each year hindering personnel’s ability to work on proactive, preventative projects.
When Chief Kendall first began his career as a firefighter, he remembered how property owners could reliably take a portable welder around their property and work on their fence in a grassy field without fear of wildfire because of higher moisture levels. Now, he observed, the fuel in the field seems more like the kiln-dried wood sold at gas stations.
Evacuations due to fire have now become a way of life on the North Coast. Chief Kendall said the need for evacuations within our region’s wildland-urban interface will grow as vegetation builds and moisture levels fall. “This is why we stress every year to do your defensible space, that is really what gives us the chance to protect your house.”
Since 2014, Chief Kendall has watched the nature of California’s wildfires change and intensify. These fires have grown in size, fed with dryer and denser fuels often driven by wind. He remembers in 1992 working the Fountain Fire in Shasta County which burned 64,000 acres and his chief told him “this will be a career fire for you.” Last summer, he worked the Dixie Fire and remembered one day where it burned the entire size of the Fountain Fire. The Dixie Fire would burn 963,309 acres, the largest single fire in California history.
Chief Kendal is the youngest of the five siblings and told us he actually has a twin brother Mark that works for CAL FIRE as the Staff Chief of Operations for the North Region.
Having his brother Matt as the Mendocino County Sheriff, Chief Kendall saw their bond as an asset in serving the needs of residents able to “bridge our gaps”. Growing up, Chief Kendall’s mother and father were both volunteers in their local fire department.
With his return to his homeland, Chief Kendall told us Mendocino County has “always been near and dear to me. That’s really what it is all about, working together and being a good cooperator.”
In the next few months, Mendocino County’s brand new CAL FIRE Chief will be “getting my feet under me, starting to get out, and be a player in what’s going on.”