Firefighters, local dignitaries and other community members gathered Wednesday at the Elks Lodge in Santa Maria to celebrate and honor firefighters from agencies around Santa Barbara County during the 42nd annual Elks Lodge Firefighter Appreciation ceremony.
The event, hosted each year by the fraternal organization, is a chance for the Elks community to show their appreciation for local agencies, including the Vandenberg Fire Department, Guadalupe Fire Department, Santa Barbara County Fire Department and Santa Maria Fire Department.
In attendance were Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino, Councilwoman Gloria Soto, Guadalupe Mayor Pro Tem Gina Rubalcaba and Santa Barbara County 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino.
Elks Lodge 1538 Exalted Ruler Luis A. Rodriguez, who served as the emcee for the event, spoke about the sacrifices local firefighters make to protect the public.
“Unlike most careers, the brave men and women who embark on the life of a first responder know that they might one day be called upon to lay down their lives in the call of duty,” Rodriguez said. “I have always seen you as special people because when everyone is running away from danger, you run into it. You serve and sacrifice for a cause far greater than yourselves. There is, in my opinion, no truer definition of a hero.”
The annual ceremony is also an opportunity for each of the participating firefighting agencies to single out one of their members for praise. Each honoree was presented with a plaque for their service.
Santa Maria Fire Chief Leonard Champion honored fire engineer Christopher Furtado, who joined the department in late 2013.
“This is a special time of the year for me,” Champion said. “It’s an opportunity for me to review nominations that our members have made. These are nominations where they talk about the pride in the department, they recognize the accomplishments of their peers, they lift each other up.”
Furtado’s name consistently came up in nominations, Champion said. “Taking quotes from the nominations that were taken about [Furtado] — some of those quotes were ‘exceeded expectations,’ ‘tremendous work ethic,’ ‘determination’ and ‘great mentor.’”
Furtado noted that the department had broken a milestone in 2017 when it ran over 10,000 calls for service and asked that elected officials and the larger community keep the members of the department in mind.
“We are the busiest fire department in the tri-county area, running more incidents with less staffing than all of our sister departments with equal populations,” he said. “We continue to get busier and are required to do more with less. At Santa Maria Fire we take a lot of pride in what we do and we do a very good job at it.
"However, I ask you to keep our members and our families in mind as we come to work these days with more dangers than any generation of firefighters before us, especially with how thinly stretched out we are in the county and in the city. Citizens that we protect deserve the right amount of staffing to protect our city and area.”
During his remarks, Champion noted that Wednesday’s event was held on the one-year anniversary of the Montecito debris flows that left 23 people dead. The response to the mudflows involved many of the county’s fire agencies that were honored during the ceremony, he said.
“I’d like to take a moment to reflect on what happened one year ago today,” he said. “Resources were being deployed to the communities of Santa Barbara and Montecito — the brilliance that pre-deployment for our regional urban search and rescue — USAR teams — resulted in many lives being saved.”
Senior Master Sergeant Clemente Marrero, of Vandenberg Fire Department, honored Battalion Chief Michael Jones, who was unable to attend the ceremony. Jones’ wife, Jennifer, accepted the plaque on his behalf.
Guadalupe Public Safety Director Michael Cash honored fireman Nathaniel Kleinsasser, who has been with the city for five years.
“Our firefighter of the year has gained a lot of experience and knowledge, not only in our fire department but with the surrounding agencies as well,” Cash said, noting that Kleinsasser holds an EMT certification and degrees from Hancock College and Cal Poly University. “He’s a hardworking, caring individual who loves the community he works for, he’s respected by his peers and a great motivator who loves to train and share his knowledge with the rookies.”
Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Scot Alderete honored Cpt. Joshua Cazier, who serves as captain of Station 22.
“I’ve known [Cazier] for a number of years now,” Alderete said. “I know that when we go to an incident — I can’t figure everything out — but what I do have is great captains, [Cazier] being one of them, that helps us to figure it out and solve whatever issue we're dealing with.”
Cazier said he wanted to thank his crew and the larger community. “We have a great community here on the Central Coast,” he said. “This doesn’t happen in other places, so I want to say thank you.”