Clovis, CA – December 23, 2014. We arrived at the Sierra Emergency Command Center (ECC) to greet a relaxed Hippy Mike, aka Mike Walsh, in the break room fixing up a pot of coffee. He guided us back to Forest Service control room with rows and panels of computer monitors and banks of equipment which included an enhanced “911” system, map and topological programs, and a monitoring system for aircraft flight following. A timer off to the side on one of the monitors was counting down and read 6 hours and 37 minutes, the time left before Hippy Mike signs off at close of business today. Only a few minutes into the interview, a medical aid toned out on the radio and Hippy Mike professionally provided instructions to assistants nearby, and seamlessly resumed the interview.
Hippy Mike began his career on the Sierra National Forest in 1970 as the Manager at the Fresno Air Tanker Base. Prior to that, Mike worked for the California Division of Forestry (now CalFire) in the Fresno-Kings Ranger Unit. In 1984 he was reassigned to the Sierra National Forest at the Sierra Emergency Command Center (ECC) where he has worked as an Assistant Forest Dispatcher. When asked what has changed the most in his 50 years in fire and the agency he pointed out how much the technology has changed, “we didn’t have computers when I first started” and “now we are dependent on them, you can’t work without them”. Mike also noted how the safety equipment has improved and how we increasingly use science to better predict weather and other factors that affect fire behavior but he points out this hasn’t changed the basics for how you fight fire. “The tactics haven’t changed that much” and you still “have to have people on the ground,” he emphasized.
When Hippy Mike started in fire he had no intention of making it a career. “I was going to school to be a cop, but the job just got under my skin”. He reminisced about the smell of the engines on the old WWII bombers at the tanker base and reflected on how the Forest Service used to be a much more close knit community where employees worked and lived in the same area, some working out of remote guard stations. “Now everybody commutes” and “it’s just different”. In terms of qualifications and promotions in fire, Mike was irked by the “good ol’ boy” mentality at a time earlier in his career and he “wanted a fair, level, playing field”. As a result he became part of the original study group that came up with the process and program that later became IQCS. In 1998, Hippy Mike received the National Al Bell Award for Excellence in Dispatching presented by the National Interagency Coordination Center. The plaque hangs on the wall at the ECC and reads “National recognition is given for outstanding performance in dispatching emergency resources. This performance is carried out in a professional manner, with attention to detail, good follow through and a pleasant disposition.”
Over the years Hippy Mike has had to deal with things a dispatcher hopes never occur including several shootings and helicopter crashes. When asked if there was a particular fire that stood out in his mind he said they were too numerous to count and “all kind of all run together”. However, he did recall his first fire – it was a call out to a fire at a general store off Academy. “The structure was fully involved and ammunition and beer cans were exploding everywhere!” He wondered why the Captain kept a small isolated area of the fire from completely extinguishing. It wasn’t until early the next morning that he realized why. It was to keep a warming fire for the “hobo” coffee the Captain made for himself and the crew and Mike’s been hooked on coffee ever since!
When asked how he got his nickname, he said it all started in the good old days with a bit of a party house he used to own near the river where pilots and folks from the base would visit. “My hair was always a bit long” and one of the pilots starting calling him “Hippy Mike” and it stuck.
Hippy Mike plans to stay busy spending time with his wife Linda, of 22 years, and working on the “honey-do” list, golfing, and riding his Harley. He also has a big project ahead to scan photos from numerous family albums that he inherited. Hippy Mike comes from a large family of 10 children with 4 sets of fraternal twins in the family! As infants, they were quite a media sensation with diaper companies lining up to deliver diaper service to the house with the twins names painted on the side of the trucks! He plans to indulge his passion for photography and took the time to share with us some great views from Shuteye and some long exposures shots of creeks and streams on the Sierra that he took. Hippy Mike also shared some expressive photos of himself and co-workers from over the years “working hard and having fun”. When fire season rolls around again, Mike will be there to assist as an AD, helping as needed with resource orders, RAWS and ordering. He has also made himself available to anyone in Dispatch who has questions since with him also leaves 55 seasons of experience!
For those of you that missed it today, Hippy Mike gave his last afternoon weather report in that iconic gravelly voice followed with a net message from Battalion 61, The Hippy, saying that “after serving 6 fire seasons with CalFire, 44 seasons with the Sierra National Forest and 30 years as one of your dispatchers, the time has come for me to hang up my headset for the final time as of close of business today. It has been a real pleasure serving you and the Sierra National Forest in our good times and times of need. Memories of the last 55 seasons will be cherished by me. If you do hear my voice on the radio it will be “from the ghost of dispatcher’s past”. Farewell my fellow employees. KMB26″
Best wishes and have fun, Hippy Mike. Thank you for your professional, dedicated and long standing service.
Respectfully submitted by Aimee Smith, Acting Public Affairs Officer for the Sierra National Forest.