Public Safety

New Chief at Fire Authority’s Helm

Beginning at the New Year, Thom Porter will serve as the Cal Fire San Diego unit chief and the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority chief.

He is replacing Howard Windsor, who retired at the end of December. Porter’s most recent assignment was staff chief at the Southern Operations Center in Riverside, but he is a fourth generation San Diegan and considers himself grounded in this county. Even while working in Riverside for the past three years, Porter maintained his home and family here, as well as his connections with Cal Fire, the County of San Diego and other regional fire agencies.

“I have a strong affinity for the backcountry and wildland emergency and environmental issues,” said Porter, 43. “At Cal Fire, our mission is not only protecting citizens, but also the environment, and this goes hand-in-hand with my beliefs and upbringing.”

Before his promotion led him to Riverside, Porter served as the chair of the Forest Area Safety Task Force and worked with Cal Fire and the County to plan the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority.

Created in 2008, the Regional Fire Authority set out to improve fire protection and emergency medical services in the region by unifying 15 rural fire agencies and extending 24-hour service to 1.56 million acres of the unincorporated county. As part of the group that helped found the Authority, Porter was involved in setting goals for its first years. In his new role, he will see those goals through.

“I had input early on and I have kept in touch (with my colleagues at Cal Fire and the county),” he said. “Over the next three months, I’ll be gathering more information about where we actually are with the Fire Authority Phase 1 and 2 goals and looking at what we need to do to move toward implementing Phase 3.”

The Fire Authority phases lay out a plan for consolidating 1.56 million acres in the backcountry that have historically been served by a patchwork of firefighting and emergency medical services. Some areas previously only had limited or part-time “on call” protection.

PHASE I: The areas served by volunteer fire companies that were not associated with a County service area, including De Luz, Intermountain, Ocotillo Wells, Ranchita, Shelter Valley, and Sunshine Summit, were merged under the San Diego County Fire Authority. This reorganization encompassed approximately 942,000 acres, which represented roughly 60 percent of the Authority’s target area.

PHASE II: The boundaries of the County service areas for Mt. Laguna, Palomar Mountain, Boulevard, Campo, and San Pasqual will be dissolved and the territories will be merged with the San Diego County Fire Authority. This reorganization, combined with Step I above will encompass approximately one million acres, or roughly 70 percent of the Authority’s target area.

PHASE III: The existing Rural Fire Protection District (FPD) and Pine Valley FPD will be considered for future reorganization into the San Diego County Fire Authority. This combined with Steps 1 and 2 will complete the target area.

Gathering so many firefighting agencies under one umbrella is not an easy task, but Porter said he’s suited to the challenge.

“I have a lot of experience in bringing people together. The County is the contracting agency but I see us as partners and I will work cooperatively and corroboratively with Cal Fire, Fire Authority staff and agency participants to further develop our cooperative working relationship to better serve the citizens of San Diego County and the natural environment of the area,” said Porter. “I think we have a unique opportunity in San Diego to really thread together programs and services to efficiently meet the mission of the Fire Authority while meeting the mission of the state on the Cal Fire side.”

Porter said he is looking forward to working on the next phases of this developing regional fire protection agency.

“I’ve had some time to work in a very broad-scale regional program and now I’m coming back to a local situation with a lot of new ideas and new contacts regionally and statewide,” he said.

Generally, Porter said his interest in the fire service was shaped by growing up in Julian. Although very young, he remembers the Laguna Fire of 1970 and the response that was required to deal with that emergency.

“What I remember most about it was the plume of smoke and how for three days it loomed to the south of Julian and kept moving west. It was a significantly scary event for a child. It consumed every day (looking at the smoke),” he said.

Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Porter remembers always being on edge and attuned to any kind of fire activity. When you live in the backcountry, you have to be ready to get up and go or act in the event of a fire, he said. This led to his interest in learning how to manage and protect the area where he grew up. Later, he studied forest management at the University of California, Berkeley and obtained his bachelor’s degree.

“At that point, I started to realize that Cal Fire offered a career in just that,” Porter said.

Porter started his career with Cal Fire in February 1999 and was assigned to San Diego Unit in 2001 where he worked the 2003 and 2007 fire sieges.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact