New Assistant Fire Chief Mike Elson of the Sebastopol Fire Department is certainly no couch potato, as he put it in a recent interview with The Community Voice.
In addition to becoming assistant fire chief last month—a volunteer position that acts as second-in-command to Fire Chief Bill Braga—Elson works 56 hours a week as battalion chief, fire investigator, instructor and strike team leader of the 11 fire stations under the Sonoma County Fire Protection District.
The assistant fire chief position means covering for Braga if he’s sick or on vacation, supervising the purchase of new equipment and assisting in administration of the fire house—all in addition to Elson’s prior position there as a training officer, working to keep Sebastopol’s volunteer firefighters ready to respond in the case of emergency.
In his off hours, when he’s not raising his ten-year-old daughter alongside his wife—both of whom, he assured me, are equally as busy—Elson teaches certificate courses for firefighters in the Northern California region.
“I’m a busy guy. That’s kind of my lifestyle,” Elson said.
Elson, 56, began his career in fire service in 1983 as a volunteer firefighter in Rohnert Park. In 1985, he joined the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District as a firefighter and EMT, where he was quickly promoted to captain, district training officer and eventually battalion chief. In 1990, he joined the Windsor Fire Protection District (now consolidated as part of the Sonoma County Fire Protection District which includes much of Santa Rosa and West County), where he still works.
Born in San Francisco, Elson grew up in Chico where, as a small child, he would spend his days at a local fire house, helping firefighters with chores like washing engines.
“I had already known growing up that I wanted to be a firefighter. I had grown up next to Chico Fire Station Number 2 and I spent all my free time there,” Elson said.
Elson became Sebastopol’s new assistant fire chief after his longtime predecessor Mike Reeser died suddenly earlier this year, one day before his 65th birthday.
According to Elson, Reeser’s death, along with the death of another assistant chief, Darrel Ramondo in 2020, have left the Sebastopol Fire Department in a state of grief and shock.
Remembering Reeser, Elson said, “He was completely dedicated to this city. He loved the City of Sebastopol. And if you were in trouble and needed assistance, he was the kind of guy who always would help—no questions asked.”
Both Elson and Braga have praised Reeser for his character and extensive knowledge of the fire services industry.
However, Elson himself has had a long and successful career in the fire service and has plenty to bring to the department in his new role.
In particular, Elson said he is a natural teacher, a role in which he says he stands out by telling firefighters in training the whole truth about the profession—particularly of failure and human error.
“The enjoyment I get out of teaching is sharing my experiences—not only good, but bad. I believe in looking at our mistakes and our errors. I’m the kind of instructor that focuses on the positive, but looks at the negative so we can learn from it. I don’t have the kind of pride that I can’t look at my failures.”
One example Elson shared of a failure was when he worked at the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District and failed to look up the address for the call on a familiar street. When firefighters arrived on the street, they attached a 400-foot line to a hydrant near a CHP vehicle with its lights engaged. As it turns out, the CHP officer was conducting a routine traffic stop, and somewhere more than 400 feet away, an attic was on fire.
Elson said this experience, when shared honestly, helps trainees learn about the dangers of complacency and cutting corners.
Honest communication, Elson said, not only helps prepare the firefighters he trains with practical techniques and strategies, but helps an increasingly overburdened county firefighter population cope with the persistent stress of raging wildfire seasons, adding to the existing stressors of a job where “you see things nobody is supposed to see.”
He said communicating about the emotional toll fighting fires in Sonoma County brings helps prevent burn out and promote mental health.
Although he’s a busy guy, Elson is happy to be helping out the city he calls home.
“I believe in helping out the community where you live, and I have always done that my whole life wherever I’ve lived. As people who live in a community, we can’t just rely on the city and county. We have to engage with our communities and give back. If everybody did that, our governments in this state and county would be a lot smaller,” he said.