Stinson fire chief retires amid ambitious plans

04/14/2021

Kenny Stevens, the fire chief in Stinson Beach for the past 20 years, is retiring next month after more than five decades with the department, citing disagreements with the fire district’s direction. Assistant chief Jesse Peri will be promoted, and two duty officers have been hired to help.

Though Mr. Stevens declined to expand on his reason for leaving, he said the district may be overly ambitious. Plans for a brand-new fire station that will cost an estimated $15 million are in the works, and at the same time the district is hiring more personnel. He said he doesn’t see how they can do both. 

“I wish them the best, but they have a big wish list and they’re counting on a lot of money coming in,” he said on Tuesday, adding, “I don’t want to get into any more trouble than I’m already getting into. I still have 47 days left, but who’s counting?”

Jeff Walsh, the board president, was also taciturn on the subject of Mr. Stevens’s departure, only saying the district is exploring new policies and changes, a transition that he said may be tough for the chief. He thanked Mr. Stevens profusely and said the board would listen to his ideas to improve the department’s efficiency.

West Marin’s volunteer fire departments have seen quite a bit of leadership turnover in recent years as a result of generational shifts. Eric Blantz, the chief in Nicasio, stepped down last year after eight years in charge, and Anita Tyrrell-Brown retired in 2019 after 15 years in Bolinas. Inverness fire chief Jim Fox is also planning to retire but is waiting until the department finds a replacement.

For decades, Mr. Stevens has been the go-to person when anyone has a problem in town. He is responsive and visible, and until the past few years he was the only person on duty for the bulk of the 24-hour day. Under his leadership, the department has grown, offering more trainings, drills and educational opportunities to volunteers. Its equipment has been updated and its operations expanded.

When he moved to Stinson Beach in 1966, he was 11 years old. His dad joined the fire department, and Mr. Stevens was a junior firefighter. It was a different era with looser rules. 

“Back then they loaded the fire trucks with beer when there was a call,” he said. “And that was my job: to get as much beer out of the refrigerator as I could.”

He became an official volunteer when he turned 16, and he received first aid certification that allowed him to do ambulance transports and drive trucks. He responded to the Grand Hotel fire in 1971 and rappelled off cliffs to rescue drivers and passengers who fell from Highway 1. He then enlisted in the Navy but still participated in drills on his visits home. When he returned for good, he was appointed assistant fire chief, and when Chief Kendrick Rand retired after 26 years, he was promoted to the top spot.

As chief, Mr. Stevens secured a grant for a new water tender, but the station wasn’t big enough to house the vehicle. He raised money for an annex on the north end of town; firefighters with contractor experience did the construction, and a local architect designed the building for free. It was one of his proudest moments as chief. Recently, he petitioned for expanded parking restrictions in town to ensure safe passage of emergency vehicles, and he was the first on the scene when a building exploded last summer.

Mr. Stevens has also made training young volunteers a focus. He finds out when houses are being torn down and hosts drills in them prior to the demolition, and he connects volunteers to classes and trainings. Of the department’s 20-person force, at least eight have been certified as emergency medical technicians, and many have gone on to become full-time firefighters at various departments. The department carries a strong reputation in Marin.

Mr. Peri is a product of Mr. Stevens’s mentorship. He became a junior lifeguard, then a lifeguard, then ran the junior lifeguard program. On his 18th birthday, he knocked on the door of the fire station and asked to volunteer. After graduating from the University of Michigan and earning a paramedic license at the University of California, Los Angeles, he chose to return to his hometown rather than take an offer at a larger department in Marin. He has worked as a duty officer, ambulance director and assistant chief since 2018. As time went on, he gave longer reports at board meetings and took on more responsibility, knowing that he would soon be in charge.

He won’t be replacing Mr. Stevens alone. Two duty officers were hired in the past year, and they’ll be responsible for the initial response to incidents. At 30 years old, Mr. Peri said he understands that he is young for a chief, but his assistant chiefs have over 100 years of combined experience.

“There’s definitely a safety net and the old guard to make sure we are headed in the right direction,” he said.

His top priorities are advocating for housing for volunteers, facilitating the discussion around the new fire station, establishing a committee to look at diversity and addressing the impacts of increased visitation. With climate change and drought, he anticipates more weather-related emergencies and increased fire danger. He said homeowners have done well creating defensible space, so the focus will be on managing vegetation on parkland at the perimeter of town.

For his part, Mr. Stevens plans to stay in Stinson Beach doing full-time maintenance work for a year and a half, then he will move to Nevada. His last day as chief is May 31.