Steve Sunderland, who oversaw state fire agencies in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties before becoming the founding chief of the Tulare County Fire Department, died Dec. 22 of natural causes. He was 63.
Mr. Sunderland was instrumental in the development and transition of the Fire Department from state operation to Tulare County, said current fire Chief Charlie Norman. Mr. Sunderland took the position in 2006 after retiring from Cal Fire. He spent more than 40 years in the fire service, Norman said, including 28 years serving Tulare County residents.
Mr. Sunderland helped to increase the staff at Tulare County fire stations and to upgrade equipment. He also volunteered with the National Fallen Firefighters Association.
In 1970, Mr. Sunderland – then a Porterville High School student – joined a California Department of Forestry seasonal fire crew. That was the start of his career.
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“I was hooked,” he told The Bee in 2001. “I was just a 17-year-old kid looking for a job. It was brought to my attention that CDF (now called Cal Fire) was looking for seasonal firefighters. I applied, and here I am.”
He continued as a seasonal firefighter though his 1973 graduation from Fresno City College with an associate of arts degree in fire science. He became a full-time firefighter that September.
Mr. Sunderland went on to serve as a fire apparatus engineer, fire captain, battalion chief and division chief within Fresno and Tulare counties. He lived in Fresno for about 15 years before he moved to Dinuba in 1984, where he served on the city’s planning commission from 1990 to 1995.
In 1997, he became a deputy chief and was named manager of the Southern Region Management Services fire prevention program.
In 2001, he became chief of the California Department of Forestry’s Fresno-Kings counties unit, headquartered in Sanger. Both the Fresno County Fire Protection District and the Fig Garden Fire Protection District at the time were under contract with Cal Fire, so he became chief of all three. He managed a $19 million budget and led 225 paid-call firefighters, 150 full-time firefighters, an air attack base and 28 fire stations.
Doug Hicks, a Tulare County fire battalion chief, was friends with Mr. Sunderland for more than 35 years. Hicks said Mr. Sunderland powered through his job as a firefighter. When he became chief, he adapted to the more complex work of management, becoming almost unrecognizable in his ability to deal with politicians and employees.
“He was a refined bull in a china closet,” Hicks said. “He adapted, and that’s why some people become chiefs and some people never do.”
He was a refined bull in a china closet.
Battalion Chief Doug Hicks
Outside of work, Hicks said Mr. Sunderland was very family-oriented. He was a regular soccer dad when his two children were growing up. He was a strong Christian, heavily involved in church. He was also an avid pheasant hunter and Harley-Davidson rider.
Mr. Sunderland became the Tulare County fire chief in 2005, inheriting a department forced to cut paid positions in the previous year because of budget problems. At that time, Tulare County was served by Cal Fire.
Mr. Sunderland retired from the position after less than six months, just as the Tulare County Board of Supervisors prepared to consider a recommendation that the county sever its nearly 80-year contract with Cal Fire for fire protection services. Officials believed the county could save money by running a department with its own employees.
Cal Fire Firefighters Union officials said at the time that Sunderland’s retirement would allow him to take the chief’s job at a non-Cal Fire county fire department and claimed he had a gross conflict of interest.
Mr. Sunderland told The Bee that he decided to retire because he had reached the top tier in the state’s retirement system. He acknowledged that he could pursue a county fire chief’s job while still drawing his state retirement, under the rules of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.
He came out of retirement less than two months later, in February 2006, after supervisors approved the creation of a county-run Fire Department. Then 52, he said he had quickly realized he wasn’t ready for such an early retirement. Mr. Sunderland retired again in 2011.
Norman, the current Tulare County chief, said he had known Mr. Sunderland since 1985. Norman said he was a “larger-than-life guy,” a great mentor and always willing to help out. Norman said Mr. Sunderland offered him guidance on many occasions after he became chief nearly a year ago.
Mr. Sunderland went to lunch with Norman and a few other chiefs from the area a couple of weeks ago.
“This is very tragic and too soon,” Norman said. “It’s a big loss for our industry.”
Born: May 19, 1953
Died: Dec. 22, 2016
Occupation: Tulare County fire chief, Cal Fire chief
Survivors: Wife, Janet Sunderland; children, Eric Sunderland and Ashlee Turner
Services: Memorial at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Dinuba First Presbyterian Church, 1250 E. Nebraska Ave. in Dinuba. Lunch reception following the service at Ridge Creek Golf Club, 3018 Ridge Creek Drive in Dinuba. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.