In his 28 years as a career firefighter, Laguna Beach’s devastating 1993 firestorm remains Fire Chief Kris Head’s most vivid experience.
The fire’s imprint comes from more than the magnitude of the blaze or from witnessing firsthand the destruction of 400 homes.
“When we go out on a fire with a strike team we fight and then we leave. Here, you’re reminded of it daily,” said Head, who nevertheless believes the city’s strides since 1993 to revise building and landscape requirements near the wild land interface have improved the town’s fire safety.
Head, who was promoted to the department’s top job two years ago succeeding retiring Fire Chief Mike Macey, announced this past Monday his own plan to retire effective Oct. 29. He’s spent all but one of his 29 years as a firefighter on the job in Laguna.
He said the department’s three current division chiefs, Jeff LaTendresse, Dan Stefano and Tom Christopher, each have been invited to apply for the department’s top job, which pays a $187,000 a year salary, according to the city’s adopted budget. The four-station $9.5 million department of 41 employees responds to 3,000 emergency calls a year, half of them medical related. The selection process and hiring will be left to City Manager John Pietig.
Head, now 51, lives in San Clemente with his wife Kimberly and two high school freshmen. A third adult child is a college junior. “I’m blessed to have this opportunity of being able to spend more time with my family,” said Head, who wants to work on his golf game. Despite his age, he says he isn’t seeking work.
Asked about the qualities of a prospective fire chief, he said, “it’s not about your ability to put out a fire,” but a candidate’s education weighed alongside administrative skills and fit with an existing management team. During his own promotion, Head was also interviewed by a three person panel that included Laguna’s former schools’ superintendent, and a city manager and fire chief from another city.
Head grew up in Costa Mesa and began his firefighting career with Buena Park in 1983. He was hired by Laguna as a probationary firefighter the following year.
Head graduated from paramedic school in 1988 and was instrumental in adding the first paramedic unit in the department. He was promoted to captain in 1989, to battalion chief in 2004, division chief in 2007 and to fire chief in 2010.
In the wake of the ’93 firestorm, where out-of-town strike teams battled the blaze, the Laguna and Newport fire departments and Orange County Fire Authority jointly compiled information on hydrant locations, street maps and GPS coordinates. Head led the effort to distill that information into a two-sided wild land map that is on every apparatus and can be distributed to other firefighters at an incident, said Stefano. “It’s one of the biggest feathers in his cap.”