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.

“We didn’t lose any homes in our shelter in place communities,” Hunter said. “I think it had a lot to do with it.”

While the shelter in place communities stayed safe, Hunter said he would always remember the homes they could not save in the district.

“It’s pretty devastating,” said Hunter. “When there’s a fire in your community the goal is to not let any homes burn. In a sense, you feel like you let the community down because you let the homes burn down.”

In Hunter’s 38 year career, he said the Witch Creek blaze was one of the worst he’s seen, second only to 1996’s Harmony Grove fire, in which 122 homes were burned down in the communities of Carlsbad and Elfin Forest.

Door always open

Daily, Hunter is paid visits by homeowners who are looking to shore up fire safety on their property. With the fire coming uncomfortably close last fall, it really got people’s attention.

“There’s definitely a lot more awareness,” said Hunter.

Hunter enjoys meeting with homeowner’s groups as well as with individual homeowners to review site plans. Staying fire safe is a complex process that looks at a lot of different factors like defensible space, roof construction, venting systems, windows, wall coverings and appropriate landscaping. Hunter sees wildland fires as something that will happen, not something that could happen so it’s important to him that people’s homes remain safe zones.

With the 42-square mile district continuing to grow, Hunter has plenty of work left to do.

“I do it because I like it, not because I have to,” said Hunter. “I’m not interested in retiring.”