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Chief Mike van Loben Sels (seated) is mentoring new Deputy Chief Paul Avila (photo by Sarah Jackson)

Van Loben Sels Takes Helm at CAL FIRE MMU

MARIPOSA – New MMU Unit Fire Chief Mike van Loben Sels has big visions for the three counties and five fire departments he now oversees.

During his 26 years with CAL FIRE, van Loben Sels has served many communities but says he’s never lost sight of the “importance” of his own family.

“They’ve been fully supportive of this whole job – which is amazing because this is not an easy career to be supportive of,” Chief van Loben Sels says, adding that he is looking forward to celebrating his 17th wedding anniversary with his wife Sarah in January.

Promoted to MMU Unit chief last month, while van Loben Sels has followed career assignments in Fresno, Coalinga, Los Banos, Beaver Dam, Coarsegold and Santa Clara, the family ‘home base’ has remained in Los Banos.

“Both our families are there, and more support for Sarah and the kids while I’m working,” he said this week during an interview with SNO in Mariposa.

Los Banos is also convenient for the chief to attend meetings in Madera and Merced.

In his new position, Chief van Loben Sels oversees five agencies: Mariposa County Fire Department, Madera County Fire Department, Merced County Fire Department, Madera City Fire Department and Atwater City Fire Department.

“Luckily I have some great division chiefs who handle a lot of the day-to-day business, but just handling those five is enough to keep me on the road quite a bit,” he says.

As for his vision for the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit, van Loben Sels says he values unity and the efficiency it brings. He listed staffing, education and more prevention projects as the key components of his vision.

“Really my biggest goal is establishing a good working relationship and cooperation among the whole unit as the counties together,” he said. “We’ve done most of that through Auto Aid Agreements.”

Auto Aid Agreements went into effect in 2019 and allow resources to cross county lines without a formal mutual aid request, he explains. “A fire in Fish Camp for example. Someone would have to call the duty chief and request permission to send the Cedar Valley Station resources. Now it’s just automatically dispatched. We’ve seen a tremendous improvement on response times in 2019.”

And faster response times mean less damaging fires.

“We’ve been establishing great teamwork throughout the three counties with the Auto Aid Agreements, so we are sending the closest resources to provide the best service across the board. It really empowers our folks to do what’s best for the community. We’ve had a lot of change going on with the large and damaging fires we’ve had over the last three to four years.”

To prevent those large and damaging fires, Chief van Loben Sels is aiming to accomplish more prevention projects similar to the burn project along Highway 41 and Road 200 conducted earlier this year.

“Resource management has become a very big part of our department. We’ve had three identified projects for the Governor’s 45 Day Report and we are looking at more projects for next year.”

Two of those major projects are fuel load reductions and fire breaks in the Greeley Hill-Coulterville area and Mount Bullion.

Meanwhile, projects in Madera, O’Neals and North Fork are “very, very preliminary right now. We are working through environmental impacts and stuff of that nature.”

Determining which properties will be considered for fuel load reduction begins with local battalion chiefs, who each put together a local project list. The local project lists are reviewed by Chief van Loben Sels and the Resource Management Section for prioritization. Priority is given to the projects which are potentially the most effective at providing fire crews with the best ability to stop a large fire.

Education is also a theme for Chief van Loben Sels. Public education about burn pile safety, property clearances, and available resources is a priority. “I think the best thing for me to tell the community is that we really are trying to do our best and if they ever have any questions, please reach out to one of our fire stations. If they don’t have the answer, we will get the answer for them. But I want the public to understand we are here for them 24-seven, 365.”

His education goals also extend to the public officials he works with, be they county supervisor boards, chief administrative officers or city councils. When speaking about the education process to governing officials about the Auto Aid Agreements, he says, “They’ve been fully supportive. The support we’ve received has been great.”

As for staffing, “we’ve had a lot of turn over through retirements and career movement which is really a good thing,” van Loben Sels says.

One such staffing development is the recent promotion to fill his own vacancy.

On Thursday (Dec. 19), he announced the promotion of Assistant Chief Paul Avila to deputy chief of the Madera Mariposa Merced Unit.

“My goal for him is to oversee the day-to-day operations of the unit,” van Loben Sels. “He will ensure we are operationally ready to function and oversee our command center and training department. He’s really been a tremendous help for me functioning here in the admin spot for the last year and a half. He’s just a tremendous individual. He’ll do an excellent job in the deputy chief position.”

Deputy Chief Paul Avila started his career with CAL FIRE in 1988 and has worked in San Benito-Monterey, Pebble Beach, Tehama-Glenn, Tuolumne-Calaveras, Delhi, and now Mariposa. He has been working in the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit for over a year.

With the recent leadership change, the communities served by CAL FIRE MMU certainly seem to be in good hands. The unit’s new leaders’ combined 57 years of experience should prove to be a great asset for the mountain community.


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