Mike Reeser was the kind of man to go above and beyond for his community, and not expect praise. “He had a hard time receiving ‘thank-yous,’” Sebastopol Fire Department Chief Bill Braga said. “That’s just the personality he had. He would say, ‘Hey, I’m just doing my job.’”
After his 42 years as a volunteer firefighter in the Sebastopol area, Braga called him the backbone and foundation of his department. Reeser served as the Assistant Fire Chief for the Sebastopol Fire Department for 33 years, until his sudden passing a day before his 65th birthday Saturday.
Reeser’s interest in serving the community as a volunteer firefighter began with his father, who himself was a volunteer firefighter and on the board of directors for the Twin Hills Fire Department.
His 42-year career as a volunteer firefighter began in 1979, while he was still in high school, when Reeser volunteered as an Explorer for the Twin Hills Fire Department (now the Golden Ridge Fire Department) in West Sebastopol for three years.
“His dad was a volunteer and he followed in his footsteps,” Braga said. Braga said he had known Reeser since high school, where Reeser was a year below him.
As assistant fire chief, Reeser was responsible for assisting the department in major purchasing of equipment, coordinating with the City of Sebastopol and responding to calls. When Chief Braga was ill or on vacation, Reeser would temporarily take over his responsibilities.
Braga said Reeser, who owned a business in Sonoma County, was a dedicated volunteer who gave his time serving his community over the years out of altruism and hometown pride. Reeser was also attracted to the comradery in the fire department.
“I think like most of us, it’s something he was doing to give back to our community,” Braga said. “We’re saving people and doing all that goes along with fire-fighting, but there’s also a sense of community—helping the community out. It sticks with you. It’s also the sense of comradery in the fire department. There’s a bond that you build. You have to trust each other, that you’ll protect one another and save one another.”
In addition to losing a long-time companion, Braga lamented the loss of institutional knowledge Reeser and his years of experience brought to the department. Braga said Reeser had participated in every major equipment purchase of the department for as long as he could remember.
Reeser had owned Santa Rosa Fire Equipment Services, Inc. since 1979, seven years after beginning working there during the summers while still in school. The business, which according to its website provides and services fire extinguishers and installs fire suppression and fire alarm systems, employs 24 people and is based out of Cotati.
The Sebastopol Fire Department is what’s called a “combination” fire department, which relies on volunteers as well as paid firefighters, common in rural areas throughout the country. Braga said there are more volunteer firefighters in this country than paid firefighters.
Volunteers like Reeser receive the same training as career firefighters and may be interested in gaining experience for future employment or simply helping to provide essential services to the community. Unlike paid firefighters, volunteers carry a special pager with them at all times. If they receive a page and are capable of responding, they drop what they’re doing to assist the department.
Braga said rates of volunteers are decreasing nationwide due to the demanding nature of the job, however, the Sebastopol Fire Department employs 32 volunteer firefighters, 24 of whom actively respond to calls. Pre-COVID, volunteers would meet weekly on Thursday night for training exercises.
Volunteers continue to be essential to bolstering the ranks of the Sebastopol Fire Department, which currently has only three full-time paid employees: the fire chief, a fire engineer and an administrative staff member. Braga said that the department’s $1.2-million budget includes funding for daily 8-hour shifts set aside for volunteers seeking experience or extra income. Each of the 24 active volunteer firefighters, which include those from “all walks of life,” according to Braga, assist the department in about 1200-1300 service calls each year—about 4 calls each day.
Braga said the department has been coping with Reeser’s death, although it has been difficult. “We were all stunned, no doubt. I got the call Saturday afternoon. I was struggling just trying to get my arms around that. Knowing that he was going to turn 65 on Sunday. Now we’re dealing with the roller coaster of going through different feelings,” Braga said.
Braga said Reeser had plans of maybe retiring and moving to a home he owns in Washington State.
Reeser is survived by his two adult daughters and wife, all three of whom work at Santa Rosa Fire Equipment as well. The family will hold a service in Reeser’s honor this week, at which Braga will speak.