Jake Hess praised for his commanding during SCU Lightning Complex Fire

Photo by Kaylee Arca
Morgan Hill Fire Chief Jake Hess accepts an honor Aug. 3 for his leadership in battling last year’s fires.

 


By Kaylee Arca

Last summer Morgan Hill Fire Chief Jake Hess faced one of the most taxing challenges of his firefighting career. In the middle of the pandemic he led his troops and helped calm South Valley residents’ nerves during the massive 44-day SCU Lightning Complex Fire, the third-largest fire in California’s history.

For his exceptional leadership, he found himself the recipient of a surprise honor Aug. 3 at the Cal Fire station off Monterey Road in Morgan Hill. Hess received recognition for his work from friends, colleagues and public officials who offered words of praise as well as certificates over a barbeque lunch.

Prominent community figures who gathered to celebrate Hess for his bravery, intelligence, kindness, and hard work in leading the fight against the fires included Mayor Rich Constantine, City Manager Christina Turner, Councilmember John McKay, Assemblymember Robert Rivas, and Police Chief Shane Palsgrove.

They presented Hess with three certificates of appreciation and a large award — which he described as looking like a “bowling trophy.” It held five figures on top representing his various professional skills including firefighting, public speaking, leadership, coaching and for “being an all-around great guy.”

McKay had the trophy specially made for Hess to show the South Valley community’s appreciation.

“You have completely exceeded everything on your job description,” he said. “It takes the best to bring out the best in others. Your leadership brings out the best in everybody.”

During the smoky days of the 2020 fires, which burned 396,624 acres throughout five counties, Hess spoke at on-line public meetings to educate Morgan Hill residents about the efforts and plans to combat the fires raging along the Diablo Range. Other fires burned in the Santa Cruz Mountains, adding stress on Cal Fire staff.

“During your town hall, you could hear the collective sigh of tens of thousands of people,” McKay said to Hess. “There was so much anxiety in the community, and you helped us overcome that.”

Hess graciously accepted the awards on behalf of his staff.

“The troops at the end of the day are where it’s at,” he said. “All of these awards I accept on behalf of the men and women in the Santa Clara Cal Fire unit.”

Hess’ calm demeanor and leadership style brought reassurance to South Valley residents as well as firefighters during the uncertain time, Turner said.

“Chief Hess is extremely smart,” she said. “He is a great leader with his people.”

Assemblymember Robert Rivas presented Hess with a framed certificate acknowledging the above-and-beyond work he did. For a few years, Rivas served as a paid-call firefighter in Hollister so he understands the demands of the job.

“The work you do is special, it’s incredibly difficult, and under-appreciated,” he told Hess.

Rivas recounted the grueling nature of fighting wildland fires and racing to create plans for containment.

“We really appreciate everything you guys do because, right now, wildfire suppression and wildfire support is a huge issue for the governor,” he said.

Morgan Hill Fire Chief Jake Hess said, “all of these awards I accept on behalf of the men and women in the Santa Clara Cal Fire unit.” Photo by Kaylee Arca

With the number and size of wildfires growing because of drier conditions, political leaders must take into account the rising cost of fighting these natural disasters, he said.

“We’re investing historic amounts of money to make sure you all have the resources, personnel, and equipment to keep this state safe, and you’re able to do your job as safely as possible,” Rivas told Hess about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans.

In addition to educating the community, Hess worked closely with law enforcement agencies to ensure residents’ safety as the fires moved closer to homes. He worked with police and sheriff departments to put together an evacuation plan that worked flawlessly.

“While I was thinking about surviving another day, our chief had enough forethought to realize the community needed reassurance,” said Cal Fire Assistant Chief Dwight Good.

Hess understands the mental challenges of being a firefighter and always makes sure his troops are getting the help they need to manage their stress, Turner said.

Hess grew so overwhelmed from stress while leading the fight against the fires that he struggled to take care of his own mental wellbeing.

“We didn’t have a single piece of resource left,” he said. “I’d heard someone say, ‘You’re going to have to do more with less.’”

For 42 days Hess led his troops from the incident command trailer. About 30 days into his post, his friend, Tony Howard, a former Cal Fire battalion chief who now works with Cal Fire employee support services, walked into the trailer for an “intervention.”

“I had the best conversation with him,” Hess said. “He knew there was a lot on my shoulders. The point is we don’t do this alone.”

Hess had to balance helping his troops while communicating with officials and the public.

“What Tony left me with is that you have control over two things: your actions and your reactions,” he said. “That’s all you’ve got in your back pocket right now.”

Hess described how his chat with Howard helped him clear his head and stay grounded. While he was talking about his admiration for his friend, Howard, by sheer coincidence, happened to stop by the station and noticed the celebration.

“He’s a great human being,” Howard gushed about Hess. “He’s very vulnerable, which is hard to show at his position. That’s what I love about him.”

The two men met about 20 years ago while both were running handcrews on a fire. Howard now works with firefighters who are struggling mentally, much like how he helped Hess during the fires last summer.

“It fell into place where I needed to help the younger generation understand this is not only a physical job, it’s a mental job. It’s going to take its toll,” Howard said.

Morgan Hill residents and the rest of California are grateful for the work of the firefighters.

“Last year was the biggest challenge any of us have ever faced but we got through it together,” Good said. “Without strong leadership, Hess’ calm focus and presence, I don’t know if it would have turned out as well as it did.”


Kaylee Arca, a 2017 graduate of Sobrato High School, recently graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies.

 

Freelance Author