It was as a 10-year-old Boy Scout in North Dakota that Michael Dietrich fought his first wildland fire.

While the scouts planted trees in 1963, a tractor started a 50-acre grass fire - a fire Dietrich and his comrades battled with buckets and wet burlap sacks.

Four and a half decades later, Dietrich retires Friday as fire chief of the San Bernardino National Forest, the site of some of the nation's most complex fire activity.

"I don't think you'd find anybody who would say anything negative about him," said Dietrich fan Casey Judd, business manger for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which advocates on behalf of federal wildland firefighters.

Dietrich, who started in his current post in 1998, went to work for North Dakota's state parks in 1976. In 1979, he started working for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon. With a degree in forestry from the University of Montana, Dietrich began his career working on the nonfire side of forest management and then began working on handcrews, fire engines and helicopters. He also worked on a Hot Shot crew in Oregon.

Also a highly regarded incident commander, Dietrich, 55, has been sent to manage groups working aspects of the Space Shuttle Columbia recovery and the aftermaths of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Frances.

"Mike is one of the best strategic thinkers I've ever worked with, and as a result, he's been able to develop, create some really forward-thinking partnerships," said San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jeanne Wade Evans.