By RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Bruce Varner will retire at the end of the year, and soon the city will have to start looking for his replacement.
Varner has been with Santa Rosa as top firefighter for almost 6½ years, just a slice of his 43-year firefighting career.
“It’s probably time,” said Varner, 64. His last day will be Dec. 30.
His departure adds one more department head job for incoming Santa Rosa City Manager Kathy Millison to fill. Millison begins her new job today. Already she needs to find a new chief financial officer and an assistant city manager.
Varner, who almost always wears a uniform, drives a marked fire department vehicle and frequently shows up at fires, said he’ll most miss being around firefighters.
“I will miss the occasional opportunity to participate in significant events with them and the ability to watch them resolve difficult situations and make a difference in people’s lives,” Varner said.
The longtime firefighter last week sent notice of his retirement to Santa Rosa’s City Council.
“Our city will miss Bruce Varner,” said Mayor Susan Gorin, calling him the consummate firefighting professional. “He was totally supportive of his staff, a visionary who took steps to professionalize the organization. …”
Varner’s firefighting career started in Phoenix and developed over 25 years. He then was chief for 12 years in Carrollton, Texas. Fire Chief magazine picked Varner as its 2001 Career Fire Chief of the Year.
When he came to Santa Rosa in 2004, he promised then City Manager Jeff Kolin he’d stay at least five years. Varner came in time to campaign for Measure O, the city’s successful attempt to get voter approval for more money for public safety.
During his tenure, two new stations were added, one in southwest Santa Rosa and one closer to the city’s core. The subsequent economic downturn led to department cutbacks, including rotating closures of those stations and a halt on replacing retiring firefighters and some promotions.
“The last three years for sure have been difficult. The next chief is going to continue to deal with budgetary issues,” Varner said.
There’s also a fire station to plan for Fountain Grove Parkway and ongoing contract negotiations with firefighters.
Varner said he’ll recommend that Millison appoint an interim chief from his staff until she makes a hiring decision.
Varner replaced Tony Pini, who was Santa Rosa’s fire chief for 18 years. Both were hired from outside the department.
Whether Millison will promote from current employees or hire from outside the city will depend on what she finds after she arrives, she said.
“We’ll have to see what we have in terms of our internal leadership as well as what needs there are for the department in the community,” Millison said.
Varner said the internal leadership is there for an inside hire. “There is the capability inside the department in my opinion.”
It won’t be the first time Millison has hired a fire chief. She said she’s hired three in her 19 years running the city of Clovis.