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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Residential life in Woodside and Portola Valley and nearby communities is scenic if not always idyllic. It's also dangerous. The forests include highly flammable eucalyptus, acacia, pine, juniper, scotch broom, French broom and coyote brush. Tectonic plates meet along the San Andreas fault, which runs under both towns.
Protecting an upscale lifestyle in the midst of this, implanting in residents' minds the constant threats of wildfire and earthquake, is one significant task for Fire Chief Armando Muela and the members of the Woodside Fire Protection District's governing board.
For Chief Muela, 54, it won't be a daily issue for much longer. He has announced plans to retire on April 29 after 33 years in firefighting, including 17 years with the Woodside district, the past four and a half as chief.
In late March, the district governing board will pick a new chief from among the five battalion chiefs in the Woodside district, Chief Muela said.
Chief Muela isn't going anywhere. He lives in Emerald Hills and said he plans to volunteer with the area's disaster preparedness programs and to remain associated with the district's foundation advisory board. The Woodside-Portola Valley Fire Protection Foundation raises money through donations for community-oriented expenses such as renewing firefighting equipment and facilities and funding fire prevention and training initiatives.
With retirement, Chief Muela's day-in-day-out tether of a cell phone and pager will be left behind. "There's not a day when I'm not actively engaged (in district activities)," he said in an interview in his simply furnished office at the fire station in downtown Woodside. "I think it's time for me to kind of take on some new challenges and reinvent myself."
He said he looks forward to his 13th year as a chaperone for middle school kids on a 22-mile hike into and out of the Grand Canyon, to improving his golf game, and perhaps to college classes on subjects such as religion and political science.
Chief Muela began with two years as a firefighter for the state, then two more in the private sector as an ambulance paramedic, he said. The next 30 years included 14 with the fire department in South San Francisco and the rest with Woodside, where he instituted a paramedic program that put advanced-life-support crews on fire engines. Ambulances at the time had a response time of 15 to 20 minutes, he said.
Chief Muela retired under a rule for public safety employees that at age 50, they can retire with 3 percent of their current salary for every year of service up to 30 years. Chief Muela will receive about $162,000 a year, he said. Cashing out his unused vacation and sick leave should add up to $90,000 and he will have lifetime health care coverage for himself and his spouse, he said.
Generous benefits. Asked to comment, Chief Muela replied: "My guess is that we will be managed down," meaning that the state Legislature will act to "claw back" some benefits of retired public employees, including firefighters and police.
"Government will shrink to a size that will be the new normal. I believe there's a movement afoot by labor to understand this," he added when asked to comment on the very public dispute in Wisconsin over bargaining rights for unionized public employees.
A peaceable district
That movement has apparently been afoot for a while in the Woodside fire district. Unlike their counterparts in the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Woodside firefighters have not seen their labor negotiations roil out into public and make news. Why?
For one thing, the district is relatively small, which allows it to be "nimble," he said. But the key, he added, is being open and transparent with firefighters because "it sets them up for change." Everyone sees the financials and he said he e-mails the entire staff on how other fire districts respond to their own financial issues. Firefighters also help in the details of choosing new fire engines.
"Every member in this organization contributes," he said. "That gives them ownership. They have a piece of it. When change does come, it's not as hard to go through."
"We all sacrifice," he added. No one in the district has seen a raise or increase in benefits in three years, he said. "The labor body has been unbelievable, has been great to the fire district," he said. "Everybody in this organization is giving back. ... It's a pill that you have to take. We all swallow the pill and we move forward."
Cooperative by nature
Among his accomplishments, Chief Muela noted the fire district's improved and improving relations with the towns of Portola Valley and Woodside.
Asked to comment, Portola Valley Town Manager Angie Howard said in an e-mail that the relationship with the district "has evolved and is very good. Armando is good to work with, is proactive, he is responsive, and keeps Susan and I informed when something important happens in town."
Woodside Town Manager Susan George struck the same note. "The town's relationship with the fire district has been very positive since Armando was named as chief," she said. "He is very open and collaborative and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him. ... I'll really miss Armando."
"Working in Woodside is such a unique feeling," Chief Muela said. His daily commute is not interrupted by even one traffic light and visiting fire chiefs regularly comment on the serene settings of the fire stations and the lower tensions of working in such an environment, he said.