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Timber Cove Fire Chief Erich Lynn retires

It’s been 50 years since Erich Lynn rode to a call with his brother on the bumper of a fire truck. He was too young to be on the volunteer roster of the fire department his parents had helped found, but he was ready to throw himself into battle nonetheless.

When he hangs up his white chief’s helmet on Sunday and retires after a life as a firefighter and 22 years with the Timber Cove Fire Protection District, he will have to get used to a life without adrenaline and the constant interruptions of fires, car accidents and rescues.

Lynn, 64, says he is ready. It was a good run. He says he is “at the point where I want to slow down a bit.”

Still, there’s a hint of misgiving as he talks about giving up his pager after all this time, even if it means he can finally go on vacation after 29 years – starting Monday, when he wants to go fishing.

“I won’t have a pager,” he said, “but it will be fun.”

As is common in rural communities where people know each other and the chief “has been in virtually every home in this entire fire district,” he will receive visitors at the firehouse from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday so people can wish him well and maybe say “thank you.”

He will then hand the reins over to EMS Captain Heidi Horvitz, a retired senior state parks ranger who served the 48-square-mile fire district for 11 years.

Horvitz said she had been encouraging Lynn to take some time for ages, but he was never willing to answer his pager.

“He’s very, very, very dedicated and, you know, he’s the guy you want there in an emergency,” Horvitz said. “He has an incredible wealth of knowledge.”

Lynn himself said he simply “always felt so bad when he left town.”

“I was just a nervous wreck and I never enjoyed it,” he said. “Now I have to turn off my pager and get some things done.”

Lynn’s parents, siblings, ex-wife and two daughters were all connected to the fire service in some way. He is one of the dwindling ranks of old-school volunteer firefighters who served rural communities decades ago, when people mostly lived and worked in the same area and had only one another to turn to for help.

His parents loaned him some of the money needed to start the Fort Ross Volunteer Fire Department when he was a child. Lynn was just 12 when he started fighting fires, even though he didn’t meet the minimum age of 16 to be on the roster.

He remembers riding on the bumper of the fire truck down Fort Ross Road when he was 14 or 15, with his sister behind the wheel. She was eight months pregnant and constantly complained that the steering wheel was rubbing against her stomach.

“I’ve been with four fire departments since then,” Lynn said, “and I’ve just enjoyed it.”

He took a break of 10 or more years while working as an auto mechanic in Santa Rosa and briefly in Oakland, but then he started working with heavy equipment, driving tractors, trimming trees and doing fire protection work. This meant he could stay on the coast and drop everything when his pager went off and later pick up where he left off.

He also set up a helipad – Nichole’s Landing – in his family’s backyard so that rescue helicopters that needed to transport patients would have a permanent landing point.

“His whole life revolved around it,” said Lynda Hopkins, district manager in western Sonoma County, recalling how Lynn would arrange errands and appointments in Santa Rosa based on whether firefighters would be available in his absence.

“He’s a good guy, a really good guy,” she said.

“You won’t find anyone here who is more committed to the community than this guy,” said former fire captain Scott Foster.

Lynn said: “It’s about helping people and making them happy. A lot of firefighting is just being there at the right time, putting out a small fire and thinking, ‘What would have happened if we hadn’t been there?'”

He said he particularly enjoyed the rope rescues because it required so much teamwork to deal with the fog, steep cliffs and tension. There is a camaraderie at the firehouse and at neighboring stations, which train together and often respond to each other’s calls for help.

Firefighters can get on each other’s nerves during the stress of a call, but then it’s over. “We’re just one big family,” Lynn said.

To emphasize his point, he said that his two daughters, Nichole and Megan, worked in the department and their mother took care of the books.

Lynn watched the region grow and change, as residents arrived and coastal visitors clogged the streets. He watched as real estate prices pushed out young people, raising the average age of his neighbors. And he learned to scout newcomers as potential firefighters, as busy schedules made it increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers.

The former department with 23 volunteer firefighters now has 14.

In his years with Timber Cove Fire, when he was a captain or engineer, there were maybe 70 or 80 calls a year requiring response. Now it can be as many as 300 as summers and weekends draw more people to the Sonoma Coast.

But Lynn says it’s a good time to make the transition because the recent passage of a half-cent sales tax under Measure H is expected to provide Sonoma County’s regional fire departments with new funding starting next year, perhaps even enough to eventually hire a paid part-time chief.

The department is also working on a county-funded master plan to guide the agency’s future while discussing the prospects of further consolidation of the region’s myriad small fire agencies – a move Lynn supports despite its complications.

“It’s bittersweet” to see him go, Horvitz said, because she knows how much he loves going on calls, Horvitz said, so she’s encouraged him to take some time and, when it feels right, return as a firefighter — without the stresses of being a department chief.

But Lynn seems to have made up his mind. He says he will miss the sound of his pager, but not “spending Christmas rescuing people and Thanksgiving dinner dealing with a car accident.”

“It was a nice long run and I had a lot of fun doing it,” Lynn said. But “when it’s time, it’s time and you just have to go for it.”

YReach staff writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or [email protected]. On X (Twitter) @MaryCallahanB.

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