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Retired fire marshal learned the field from the ground up

 
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Denise Enea became a specialist in making sure Woodside and Portola Valley neighborhoods were protected from wildfire during the time she served as the Woodside Fire Protection District's fire marshal.

And now that she retired from the district, she says she can look back on her 24 years of service and say that the two towns and surrounding areas are much safer from fires than they were before she arrived.

"People weren't thinking about fire resiliency 20 years ago," said Enea, who retired on Dec. 28. "People have really changed, and today they're trying to prevent fires from igniting in the first place, and trying to keep the fires as slow-moving as possible."

Enea grew up in Woodside and never drifted very far from home.

A Woodside High School graduate, she attended college at the University of San Francisco to become a registered nurse. From there, she went into high-rise construction doing project management for a local contractor, and then made a career change to follow her father, John Enea, a Redwood City fire district battalion chief, into the field.

"I really liked the idea of not making money for somebody, going to work, helping people solve problems, and public service," she said.

Enea started out humbly as a receptionist at the front desk in the fire district office, but soon began taking classes on fire prevention with the idea of making that her specialty, said Fire Chief Rob Lindner, who was on the staff when she joined the district.

Enea said she was mentored by the previous fire marshal, Robert Nahmens, and took over for him when he retired in 2003.

During the period she worked under Nahmens' guidance, she prepared people to work for the fire district, and did building safety inspections and inspections of open space areas, she said.

"We work with a lot of large landowners, including the Midpeninsula Open Space District," she said. "They want to do fuel reduction, but they just don't know where to start."

Enea also helped start Woodside's incentive program for "home hardening," in which residents receive up to $2,000 from the town to make their homes more fire resistant.

Another part of her job was fire investigation. The district now has three certified investigators who determine the cause of vegetation fires, she said.

Enea started the district's chipper program, in which the fire district picks up brush after people clean up their property, then cuts it up and disposes of it. The program operates from May through November.

Lindner noted that Enea was able to put her construction management background to good use as the project manager for the construction of Station 19 in Emerald Hills, the newest of the district's three fire stations.

Enea has worked closely with the town governments of both Portola Valley and Woodside in developing plans and programs to cut the wildfire threat.

"The fire marshal is in charge of the fire prevention side, the plan reviews, and code enforcement on building construction," Lindner said. "She oversees everything in fire prevention."

Portola Valley Town Manager Jeremy Dennis said Enea was heavily involved with the town's Wildfire Preparedness Committee, and the town adopted "99 percent" of the committee's recommendations.

"She was the fire district's resource to the committee for home hardening and design recommendations that will be implemented over the next year or so," Dennis said.

Although she says she's never done any firefighting, Enea said she's had some memorable experiences working with the district.

One time, after putting out a fire, the crew found some torpedo devices on the property and had to call in the bomb squad from Moffett Field.

"We found the tail of a little bomb that turned out to be left over from the Korean War," she said.

Another time, after a house fire was put out, the fire crew found that a resident had hidden $100 bills in magazines and had been storing money in different parts of the house.

"As we started taking the debris out, we started finding all this money everywhere," she said.

Enea, a Redwood City resident, said the best thing about her job was the people she met in the fire service.

"The fire district is very caring and understanding," she said. "It's about meeting the residents and spending time with them. There is this huge customer service component."

In retirement, Enea is continuing to work for wildfire resiliency as president of Fire Safe San Mateo County, the organization dedicated to protecting property and the environment for county residents in the wildland/urban interface, according to the organization's website. The organization maintains public/private partnerships for education and fuel reduction.

Enea said she is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, John Charlebois, and their grandson, Jaime, as well as hiking, gardening and "spending quality time with friends and family."

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