Fire and Courage in Santa Barbara

Fire and Courage in Santa Barbara

Mike Gallagher is one of those almost mythical characters, a powerful combination of strength and courage, yet soft-spoken and amazingly humble. His physical presence in a room is intimidating, but he puts you immediately at ease with his peaceful demeanor and goofy sense of humor.

The first time I met Mike, we were headed out to surf a private stretch of California Coastline called Hollister Ranch, which is only accessible by boat. As we cruised out to sea, his outboard motor suddenly broke down. After 30 unsuccessful minutes of tinkering with the engine, Mike started kicking around the idea of just throwing on our wetsuits, grabbing our boards, and paddling through the shark-infested kelp fields in zero visibility fog. I was not amused or on-board with this plan. Thankfully, Mike eventually got the engine going again and we found our way to some insanely fun waves that day.

Mike dedicates the majority of his time to serving his community as the Battalion Chief of the Carpinteria Fire Department. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, Santa Barbara has just experienced the largest fire in California state history. I recently caught up with Mike over the phone. After 16 consecutive days on duty, he was blowing off steam in the firehouse gym.

First things first, I wanted to get the insider’s perspective on his experience during the Thomas Fire. Mike informs me that there is currently a collaborative effort between fire departments from Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada and California. Mike adds that fire season is usually long over by now, but for a fire of this magnitude, it’s typical for surrounding states to contribute to the effort. He said many of the guys have never seen single digit humidity in their entire careers, which combined with the “Santa Ana” winds, aided in the spread of the fire. He said losing homes in December during a typical fire season is practically unheard of. Obviously, this is not a typical fire season.

Mike explained to me that when a fire like this begins there is a unique professional culture in which certain personnel ranks dissolve and people change roles multiple times during the event. For the Thomas Fire, Mike began as a Strike Team Leader with 5 Engines under his command. He then shifted to a Division Supervisor Role, overseeing the Sheppard Mesa area of the fire. Mike claims, “This was the most intense fight of my life. Strong winds, multiple homes in the fire’s path, and lots of residents who ignored evacuation warnings and were then in need of rescuing.” He spent the rest of his 16-day shift as the Branch Director for the location from Montecito to Highway 154.

It takes a vast array of knowledge, strategic planning, and an immense shouldering of responsibility to be in charge of the safety and well being of fellow firefighters not to mention entire communities. However, if there is anybody up to the challenge, it’s Mike; he is a man who exudes not only competence and skill, but also level-headedness and an almost eerie calmness in the face of such overwhelming disaster.

When he isn’t putting his life on the line in service to his community, Mike is taking full advantage of all the available fun to be had on the west coast. I asked Mike what his perfect weekend off looks like in Santa Barbara. His reply sounds heavenly to me:

“First I go home from the station and am greeted by my girls, Anna Bella and Rudy (Mike is a serious dog lover). Then I’ll drive the dogs over to the Douglas Preserve, which is a gorgeous leash free area where the dogs can get some energy out of their systems. When the dogs have had enough, I’ll grab coffee from a local café called The Wall and drive over to Little Rincon. If the waves are pumping, I’m usually able to catch some good ones and give the dogs some time to roam the beach. Then I’ll come home, get in the hot tub with an ice cold beverage and hopefully have enough time to take the dogs out for one more outing to watch the sunset at Henry’s Beach.”

Before I let Mike go I ask him if there is anything he would like to add. He pauses for a moment and then simply states, “No property is worth a life.” He adds that if people wish to help with the recovery, the best thing to do is to go online and find a webpage that gives a direct donation to Cory Iverson’s wife and kids. Cory is the brave North County fire fighter who tragically lost his life during the Thomas Fire.

I thank Mike for his time and tell him to get some much-needed rest and enjoy his down time with his girls. I hang up feeling inspired and reminded that there is always something more I could be doing to help my community. California is lucky to have people like Mike watching over her.

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