Fire chief retires from Pickel Meadows civilian department |

Fire chief retires from Pickel Meadows civilian department

Linda Hiller

If you can try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, then why not attempt to make a respectable nine-man working fire station out of a bunch of tacky tents in “no man’s land,” California?

First, you need to find someone like Fire Chief Lou Best.

At the Pickel Meadow Mountain Warfare Training Center south of Walker, Calif., on Highway 108, a miracle happened 15 years ago, and residents as far away as the Carson Valley have benefitted ever since.

In a 1982 move to reactivate Pickel Meadow as a winter training ground for United States Marines after being closed during the Vietnam War, U.S. Department of Defense officials decided if they were to have a healthy, working operation in this isolated base, perhaps a solid, reliable fire department was in order.

Rather than work from within the Marines, they looked to civilians to staff and operate the department.

Lou Best, who had many years of experience in the fire-fighting business, came to Pickel Meadow in 1982 for the position of chief.

“The first day I got there, I got stuck in the snow on 108,” he said. “When I got the tour of the old place, the fire trucks had flat tires, the intakes were frozen and there was ice coming out of the hoses. I went back to the guy who hired me and said, ‘I think I need a cup of coffee.'”

Best said he took the job anyway, because he had never before let a job defeat him.

“It turned out to be a terrible season, the winter of 1982-83,” he said. “Now, when they talk about El Nino, they’re comparing its effect to that winter.”

But Best prevailed, and one by one he hired a crew.

“Sometimes I wish I could have interviewed the wives, because they were often the ones who couldn’t stand the isolation,” he said, adding that Bridgeport is 24 miles away and Walker, 17 miles.

Through the years, the department remained civilian, which he said is the reason for its relative stability.

“The military likes to move people around, so their population was transient,” he said. “But we’re the hub of the operation, while the Marines go in and out.”

The nine-person fire department is currently responsible for many areas outside of the base itself, which covers 49,000 acres under a joint land-use agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.

The department also has mutual aid agreements with the Antelope Valley Fire Protection District, Bridgeport Fire Department, Bureau of Land Management, Mono County and more than 120 housing units in Coleville, Calif.

Department personnel helped on the Coleville fire and the Marine fire, which happened at the same time as the Autumn Hills fire in Carson Valley on June 23, 1996. Had they been available, Best said, they would have come to Autumn Hills in a heartbeat.

Emergency medical technicians from Best’s department tended to the 1986 tourbus crash in the Walker River, where 28 people died at the scene of the crash and 39 eventually died as a result of the crash.

The fire fighters also tend to wildland, structural and airport firefighting as well as hazardous materials and confined space rescue.

Roger Teply, a full-time firefighter engineer who has been with the department for many years, said working for Best was like being a part of his family.

“He made us what we are today,” Teply said. “He took it from ground zero and built a great department. We’re just like a big city department.”

Best, 55, retired last June under the mandatory retirement rule of the Department of Defense. He and his wife, Ann, live in Topaz Ranch Estates.

“They make us retire after 20 years because they’re kind of hard on us while we’re working for them,” he said.

Replacing Best is James Ayres, a 31-year firefighting veteran who transferred from China Lake, Calif. He and his wife, Deborah, plan to settle in the Carson Valley.

As with all fire departments, the ever-changing nature of what they do means that this 15-year-old civilian department will never be actually finished.

“Oh, you’re never done with fire service – one day you may be saving the life of someone drowning in a river, the next day you’re fighting a wildland fire,” Ayers said. “Every day is a new challenge and Lou did a great job creating this department and its family atmosphere. I look forward to carrying on.”