Laguna Beach fire chief set to exit in July

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Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mark Garcia speaks during an aerial firefighting demonstration in November 2020. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The Laguna Beach Fire Chief will retire after a 36-year career in public service, including more than four years at the helm of the small coastal fire agency, city officials announced Thursday.

Fire Chief Mike Garcia is set to retire on July 1, according to a press release. That’s the same date Laguna Beach will launch its in-house ambulance team. As Laguna Beach’s 19th fire chief, Garcia took over the department from Acting Fire Chief Tom Christopher in May 2018 after a 32-year career with the Long Beach Fire Department.

“Laguna Beach is a beautiful city and a wonderful community filled with passionate and caring people,” Garcia said in a press release. “I have truly enjoyed my many interactions with community members and will miss many of them.”

Garcia has led the agency through two years of an unprecedented pandemic that put firefighters, paramedics, and engineers at personal risk of contracting the coronavirus. The Department has soldiered on through a busier tempo with COVID-19 related calls, plus the usual calls for service related to traffic collisions, fires, ocean-related injuries, and routine medical emergencies.

“I could not have asked to work with a more caring, compassionate, and committed group of people as I did with the Laguna Beach Fire Department,” Garcia said in a press release.

In addition to the daily administration, Garcia also assisted with implementing the recommendations of a 2019 Wildfire Safety and Mitigation Report.

The report’s importance was reinforced during a January 2019 visit by Garcia, then-Mayor Bob Whalen, then City Manager John Pietig, and other city staffers to the town of Paradise after the devastating Camp Fire.

Laguna Beach completed an expansion of its outdoor warning system, a network of loudspeakers mounted on buildings that broadcast evacuation orders during wildfires, debris slides, and tsunamis.

The City Council also approved the purchase of a mobile water tank system, called a HeloPod Dip Tank, the can be positioned during peak fire conditions to automatically refill firefighting helicopters without requiring them to land.

The growing chain of city-built wildfire fuel modification zones has also been a central project of Garcia’s tenure.

As the City attempted to implement defensible space guidelines required by Assembly Bill 28, Garcia and his department endured some public backlash by homeowners upset with the prospect of having to rip up trees and other landscaping deemed hazardous to structures and firefighters. Garcia persisted saying local plan as necessary to protect Laguna Beach’s unique aesthetic from a more onerous plan created by the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Critics have voiced a slate of grievances ranging from private property rights to concerns about removing shade amid climate change to a lack of definitive exceptions for well-irrigated gardens. In September 2021, the City Council voted to approve the defensible space guidelines advanced by the Fire Department, which now requires a wildfire inspection as a condition of closing escrow.

“What we want to do for the next few years is we want to go heavy with education,” Garcia told councilmembers last year. “We believe through simple modifications that can still be beautiful—and I know there’s differences of opinion on that—but really with simple modifications our community can be more safe.”

Laguna Beach city officials congratulate Garcia on a successful career and wish him well in retirement, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said in a press release.

“We are very grateful to have had Chief Garcia’s guidance, leadership, and fire expertise over the past four years in Laguna Beach,” Dupuis said.

Garcia holds a bachelor of science degree in vocational education from California State University, Long Beach. He’s also a member of the Orange County Fire Chiefs’ Association.

The City plans to conduct a nationwide search for Garcia’s successor. Garcia wasn’t available for an interview via Zoom or phone this week, a city spokesperson said.

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