Ranch firefighter honored as best in the county

Rancho Santa Fe Fire Marshal Cliff Hunter was recently named San Diego County's Fire Prevention Officer of the Year. The long-time firefighter is considered an expert in wildland urban interface and his work reviewing developments in Rancho Santa Fe led to many homes getting out of the Witch Creek Fire unscathed.

"Obviously the award is well deserved," said Fire Chief Nicholas Pavone, who has worked with Hunter for many years, even before Hunter came to Rancho Santa Fe. "He is very, very passionate when it comes to fire prevention and fire prevention activities."

Fellow firefighters call Hunter incredible, amazing - some even call him a celebrity, "Do you know he's been on CNN?" said one.

"I get a little embarrassed because I don't do this job to win a lot of awards," said Hunter, 62. "I do my job to make the community safer."

A long career

Hunter has been a firefighter for nearly 38 years, starting out as a volunteer fireman in 1970. At the time he was 25 years old and had been working for Douglas Aircraft as a tool designer.

"I was looking for something that had more variety, more of a challenge to it," Hunter said.

In the fire department, he found that challenge, completing his training as an EMT and his degree in fire science in 1978. Hunter put in long years for the San Marcos Fire Department, where he worked from 1971 to 1998 before opting to retire from the trade.

Hunter's retirement from fire led him to become a "dinosaur doctor" at the Wild Animal Park, repairing the mechanical dinosaurs the park then had on display.

His retirement was brief and he hung up his dino doc tools later that year to become fire marshal for San Diego County. One of his biggest accomplishments there he said was bringing together the county's first consolidated fire code, not an easy feat with 17 different fire districts with 17 different points of view.

He held the San Diego county post until 2003 when he was selected out of 16 candidates to become Rancho Santa Fe's fire marshal, where he's happily served for the last five years.

"I have a great staff," said Hunter. "A good staff is important because all of us represent the fire district. Our common goal is to meet the public's need for fire safety and do it with professionalism."

His stake in "shelter in place"

In Rancho Santa Fe, Hunter was able to do some very important wildland urban interface work. Hunter was one of 20 participants in the state that helped develop wildland standards and "shelter in place" communities. Shelter in place is a wildfire protection plan that imposes construction and landscape standards. The standards are supposed to be so protective that homeowners can remain sheltered in their homes if they cannot evacuate.

Hunter helped design five local communities that use the shelter in place technique: The Crosby, Cielo, The Bridges, The Lakes, Santa Fe Valley and 4-S Ranch. The technique faced it's biggest test last fall when the Witch Creek Fire came blazing through. But the work held up.

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