By Karen Brainard
The experience of seeing a fire as a teenager ignited an interest for Kevin O’Leary that led to a lifelong career, one in which he remains active despite his retirement.
“I love the business,” said the 53-year-old Ramonan who climbed the ladders during his career to a top position with CalFire.
Before retiring in December 2010, O’Leary served as CalFire’s deputy chief of local government, reporting to the head of CalFire in San Diego County.
During his lengthy career, O’Leary said, he has seen historical changes in firefighting.
Forecasts of Santa Ana winds now make him nervous, and O’Leary said he worries about young firefighters being in harm’s way.
“I hope you never see another ‘03 or ‘07,” he said, referring to the wildfires that occurred in those years. He noted that during the Cedar fire in 2003 and the Witch Creek fire in 2007, other fires were burning in the area.
“Those two periods of time in October were the worst I saw in my career,” O’Leary said.
In 2003, O’Leary said, he was working the Cedar fire in San Diego Country Estates when he was called to work the Paradise Fire in Valley Center. There were fires all over, he noted.
The fire that sticks out most in his mind, however, is the Poomacha fire that started on the La Jolla Indian Reservation at the base of Palomar Mountain on Oct. 23, 2007, while the Witch Creek fire was burning.
“It was an unbelievable fire for me,” he said. “I never saw fire move so quickly. It moved at an unbelievable rate.”
The conditions were explosive, the seasoned firefighter noted, with winds over 70 mph and critically low fuel moistures.
“Embers traveled a mile ahead of the fire front,” he said. “It was something you never want to see again.”
According to O’Leary, about 245 homes burned in the La Jolla and Rincon Indian Reservations and Pauma Valley, and pockets of that fire were still burning around Thanksgiving that year.
In 2007, O’Leary said he was awake longer than he’d ever been in his life. He had been working the fires for 60 hours when he was told to get some sleep.
“It was total chaos,” he said of the fire situation.
Firefighters just continued to work with little sleep, he said. And yet, when he was told to nap, O’Leary didn’t want to leave.
From the 2007 Witch Creek fire, O’Leary saw something that amazed him. For months, fires continued to smolder underground and followed the root systems of trees, causing a tree, such as an oak, to suddenly start burning.
“I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it,” he said.
Firefighting conditions started becoming more difficult around 2000 when there was a fire in Fallbrok, he said. Firefighters were unable to contain the fire like they normally did because of drought conditions.
O’Leary’s career began at age 15 when he served as a volunteer with the Poway Fire Department. He worked his way into a reserve position.
In 1976, he started as a reserve firefighter in Ramona and two years later was hired by the Ramona Fire Protection District as an emergency medical technician (EMT). That year he moved to Ramona.
O’Leary said he went through the volunteer academy at Miramar College and earned an associates degree.
He worked his way up the ranks in Ramona until 1993 when the Ramona Municipal Water District contracted with CalFire.
For just over a year, O’Leary served as a battalion chief for the Puerta La Cruz conservation camp near Warner Springs where prison inmate crews are trained.
He stayed with training when he was transferred to CalFire’s headquarters in El Cajon.
In 1997, O’Leary accepted the position of battalion chief for the Valley Center Fire Protection District. Ten years later, after the Witch fire, he was promoted to CalFire division chief overseeing the northern half of San Diego County.
O’Leary was promoted in 2009 to one of two CalFire deputy chief positions. His job dealt with local government while the other deputy chief was involved with operations.
Although his position allowed him to retire at age 50, O’Leary said that even at age 53 he felt he wasn’t ready to retire. With his pension, he is allowed to work 960 hours maximum per year doing consulting work, he said.
O’Leary said he will work as a contract employee for special projects and has been serving as a liaison between the San Diego County fire authority and CalFire.
O’Leary works about four days a week and has volunteered as an incident commander, providing training for command teams.
“It’s nice being retired and not have the responsibility of being on call all the time,” he commented.
“It has been a wonderful career for me,” O’Leary said. “Looking back, there’s nothing I’d rather have done with my life.”
The interest in firefighting has spilled over into his family. Of O’Leary’s four daughters, his oldest, Abby, 29, is a fire captain with CalFire. Leah, 25, works in finance for CalFire. Mindy, 23, a teacher of cosmetology, married a seasonal CalFire firefighter.
Daughter Kerri, 27, followed in her mother’s footsteps, O’Leary said, as both she and his wife Priscilla are dental assistants.