Morro Bay Fire Chief Steve Knuckles announced he would be retiring effective July 31 after some 38 years as a firefighter. Photo by Neil Farrell
Morro Bay Fire Chief Steve Knuckles got a taste of his future career not too long after he graduated from Atascadero High School. And now, some 38 years later, the eighth fire chief in the town’s 56-year history, is ready to retire.
Estero Bay News sat down with the chief to reflect on his tenure in public safety and 22 years at MBFD. (It should be noted that in 1999, this reporter interviewed then-Capt. Knuckles, who had just been hired by Morro Bay, for the now defunct, Sun Bulletin Newspaper, introducing him to the community.)
He was introduced to firefighting by accident. He was hanging out with a friend from high school in July of 1982, he recalls. His friend was a reserve firefighter with Atascadero Fire Department. “Back then everyone carried pagers,” Chief Knuckles, 56, says and also carried their PPEs [personal protection equipment] with them in their cars.
Suddenly the friend was paged to respond “to a large barn fire,” Knuckles says. “I sat there and watched” the firefighters fight the blaze. “It looked like fun. I needed a job, so the following Tuesday I went to drill night and got my gear that night.” That was Aug. 1, 1982. “I was skinny and had hair back then,” he laughs.
He did a lot of different things for work, “from milking cows to selling auto parts,” while attending Cuesta College and then Cal Poly.
At about 24, he figured out that he wanted to be a firefighter and by 25, he’d been hired full time by Atascadero F.D. Chief Michael Hicks hired him. “That’s when I started my full time career,” he says.
Already being a reservist at AFD helped a lot. Indeed being part of a reserve force has always helped people get hired on full time. “Joining the reserves gives you major bonus points,” with getting hired, he says. “I have not hired anyone here or anywhere else who was not a reserve someplace.”
The fire service is different today than when he started. “It is totally different today. They should call it an apprentice program. With the new state fire marshal standards and OSHA, you need hundreds of hours of training and it’s pushed out the person who wants to do it as a community service.”
Today, all the prospective firefighters are younger, college educated, or right out of the fire academy. It used to be that you could find experienced firefighter reserves. He noted that the late-Graham Pask, who was a reserve with MBFD for over a decade, was “one of the last community-based reserve firefighters. The whole state is that way.”
Most large fire departments have already transitioned to a full, full-time staffing and Chief Knuckles believes Morro Bay will have to some day. “What’s driving it is the costs,” he says. “Full time firefighters are expensive. We will eventually have to go there. The cost for reserves is not productive.”
So firefighter Knuckles toiled away with Atascadero F.D. for about 6 years and in 1999, he tested for an open captain’s position in Morro Bay and got the job.
“May 1, 1999 I came to Morro Bay,” Knuckles says. “I took the captain’s test, did well and Fire Chief Jeff Jones hired me.”
It was a rare job opening for the Morro Bay Fire Department, which only has four captains at a time. He replaced former Capt. Brian Miller, who left Morro Bay to go to medical school and Chief Knuckles says the last he heard, Dr. Miller was an emergency room surgeon on the East Coast. Capt. Miller left his mark on the department.
“We’re still using the probationary firefighter guidelines that he wrote,” says Chief Knuckles.
Over the years, he has seen a lot of things come and go, one of the more memorable was the old fire station that had stood at the corner of Harbor Street and Piney Way since the 1940s and was in terrible shape with actual mushrooms growing in the carpeting and fungi in the walls. Despite it being about 30 years past its useful life, it literally took an act of God to get rid of it.
“Thank God for the Earthquake,” Chief Knuckles laughs. “That prompted the City into action.”
He’s talking about the December 2003 San Simeon Earthquake that cracked the foundation of the old engine barn and led to its condemnation. That led to the department’s expensive engines and equipment being put into a large tent erected behind the old stationhouse, but they would still use the station, until someone closed a door that was always kept open and discovered fungi growing up the wall.
But it wasn’t until 2014, when the department used the old fire station for a training exercise, literally torching the place for practice.
“I was a very happy person,” Chief Knuckles, who was named interim chief in January 2013, and promoted to chief that March, smiles, “to help with a fire suppression class and burn it down. It went up way faster than I thought it would.”
Over the years, he’s been a large contributor to the response at countless wildfires up and down the state, learning from some of the best incident commanders in the business.
“I’ve made so many friends,” he says, “people that I really respect. I got to hang out with the greatest emergency planners in the nation.” He says he picked up leadership styles and how to manage large incidents “and brought that back home to Morro Bay.”
Over a 38-year career, you might think he’s seen just about everything, but 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic was a new experience for everyone, the fire department was no exception.
Chief Knuckles had the responsibility of activating the City’s Emergency Operations Center plan, which would normally be in effect for a few days at the most after a natural disaster.
But with the pandemic and the City’s various programs it started to assist residents, the EOC was active full time for months and was being run out of the firehouse and overseen by Chief Knuckles.
When COVID started, he says, his became a 7-day-a-week job. They’ve done a lot with the COVID response, he says.
“A fire chief doesn’t just lead a fire department,” he says. “He has to lead and work in partnership with the other departments and with the city manager.”
Since coming to Morro Bay, Chief Knuckles has worked under seven different City Managers and just as many police chiefs. “With Scott [Collins, the current city manager] it’s a partnership in everything. He’s made my job and my decision easy to retire 10 months after I became eligible. I wanted to do the right thing, and he made it easier.”
His actual retirement date is March 30, but he agreed to stay on as an interim chief until July 1. The City anticipates it will take up to 14 weeks to fill his shoes.
The best thing about his career has been “I always try to find a way to say ‘yes,’” he says. “Whether I’m working with the fire guys or with other portions of the city, I really enjoy being a problem solver.”
His work during wildlife seasons was “very rewarding,” he says. In Santa Clara County he worked with 182 ranchers to make sure they could feed their cattle and in Butte County he worked with the Indian Rancherias (another name for Reservation), and the tribes “to help evacuate them and repopulate them as soon as possible.”
The worst thing about it all is the time spent away from family. “You marry a city when you become a fire chief,” he says. And many times when your city has to come before your family. My wife is really happy I can turn my phone off at night.”
He and wife Deanne, a San Luis Obispo girl that he met in the Lucky’s Supermarket in Atascadero, have already done a lot of traveling during their long marriage.
Chief Knuckles says he’ll stay active with the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, which he has been a huge supporter of since its inception, and has organized many annual SLO County Burn Foundation Firefighter Relays.
He’s also a football coach at Atascadero High School, which he wants to continue with. His son Logan, who stands 6-foot 8-inches tall, is now playing basketball at Cuesta College, where his coach says he wants to bring back the “big man” game of basketball.
Chief Knuckles has helped coach his son’s teams as he was growing up. “I really enjoy that kid,” he says of Logan. “I’m blessed to have a great relationship with him. He’s a great kid. He has his mother’s personality.”
In a prepared statement, City Manager Collins, said, “Chief Knuckles has dedicated his life to the fire service and serving the community and leading the Morro Bay Fire Department. Steve is an exemplary public servant and we greatly appreciate all he has done to transform the department, serve the community and lead the City through this challenging pandemic.
“We are excited for him as he prepares for the next stage of his career. I am grateful that he will continue to lead the department as we conduct the recruitment to fill the very big leadership shoes he will leave behind.”
Chief Knuckles says his last day is to be July 31, presumably after the City has recruited and hired someone to replace him. Collins says they would be bringing in “outside support to facilitate the recruitment process and include the community, fire professionals from the area and the fire department staff in the process to ensure a good fit in the next Chief.