JASON PESICK Staff Writer
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.
Early in his career, Dietrich spent time in grocery stores looking for household items, like Dawn dish soap, in an effort to create firefighting foam. The foam makes water more effective against fires, and now all wildland fire engines carry the foam.
He was also one of the leaders in forming the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce, a multiagency group that works to prevent wildfires in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
"It's just been phenomenal to me," he said, pointing out that more than 32 agencies get involved in a serious fire incident. He said the idea was to get away from the scattered, "Stanford Marching Band" style of the past and move toward a coordinated effort.
Dietrich also helped develop the U.S Forest Service Honor Guard, along with class-A uniforms for members to wear, to attend memorials, services and other high-profile events.
As fire chief, Dietrich has been close to his firefighters.
Judd, business manager of the firefighters association, called him down to earth, honest and willing to talk to anyone.
"His firefighters just love him, and I think that's the most important thing," he said.
The low point for Dietrich was when five firefighters died fighting the Esperanza Fire in October 2006.
"It is extremely emotional, and I'll carry that with me for the rest of my life," he said.
Earlier this month, a Riverside jury found Beaumont resident Raymond Lee Oyler guilty of murder for starting the fire and sentenced him to death.
After leaving the Forest Service, Dietrich plans to get his professional forester license so he can practice forestry as a private consultant. He also plans to work with the La Verne Fire Department on a part-time basis as a deputy chief of emergency operations and to teach.
Kurt Winchester, the current Mountaintop District ranger on the San Bernardino forest, will take over for Dietrich.
"I think Mike has just been an extremely valuable asset to the forest," Winchester said of his predecessor. "He's done tremendous work, particularly in terms of interagency cooperation."
As a fire chief and incident commander, Dietrich said he enjoys being able to see the results of his work.
"And to me it's serving the public," he said.
Source: RDF - Link