In late August 2020—deep into one of the most devastating fire seasons in California’s history—Morgan Hill Fire Chief Jake Hess was challenged with trying to motivate hundreds of firefighters who were assigned to the massive SCU Lightning Complex fire to the east of Santa Clara Valley.
The “troops” had been carrying hose on their backs and cutting fire breaks all summer, Hess recalled, and with multiple gigantic wildfires burning throughout the state at the time, CalFire’s resources were stretched beyond their limit.
Hess, CalFire’s Santa Clara Unit Chief, was the Agency Administrator overseeing the intricately coordinated attack on the seven-county SCU Complex. One morning, just before heading to his first briefing to hundreds of firefighters at the command center at the Alameda Fairgrounds, Hess was told by his commanders that the crews would have to “do more with less,” he said recently.
It was a refrain that Hess had heard many times throughout his 25-year-plus firefighting career, and now he had to think about how to relay that same message to his crews without dampening their spirits.
“I grew up with hose on my back (and) came through the system, and here I am now the unit chief and I have this moment that we can’t ‘do more with less’ because everyone I’m staring at is already giving 100%,” Hess said. “It kind of falls on deaf ears. That first briefing, I told them I heard that and I had heartache, and we needed to adjust with less…We had very little resources, and I felt compelled to empower them: ‘It’s up to you to figure out how to suppress this fire without getting anybody hurt or killed.’ The troops heard that message and I had a lot of positive feedback.”
This leadership style—setting expectations and trusting the crews to do their jobs while supporting them along the way—was a key factor in CalFire’s success in preventing deaths or catastrophic property damage and stopping the SCU Complex from reaching residential neighborhoods on the eastern edge of Morgan Hill, according to local public officials.
On Aug. 3, some of those officials surprised Hess at CalFire’s Santa Clara Unit headquarters in Morgan Hill, with a series of proclamations and a trophy recognizing his leadership on the SCU Complex fire. The officials thanked Hess for his expertise and vast firefighting technical knowledge that helped keep the fire contained, and for his reassuring demeanor that let anxious residents under evacuation warnings rest easy knowing that CalFire was not going to let the wildfire reach their homes.
“You made people feel very comfortable,” Morgan Hill Mayor Pro Tem John McKay, a resident of the Jackson Oaks neighborhood, told Hess at the Aug. 3 proclamation ceremony. McKay gave Hess a proclamation from Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who was not present, as well as one from the City of Morgan Hill.
Assemblymember Robert Rivas presented Hess with a state proclamation, also signed by State Senator John Laird. Rivas said a “huge priority” in his office and among state officials is finding more resources for wildfire suppression.
“The work you do is special, it is incredibly difficult and it is underappreciated,” Rivas said. “We appreciate everything you guys do.”
The SCU Complex ultimately burned nearly 400,000 acres in August and September to the east of Henry W. Coe State Park. The blaze destroyed 138 structures and resulted in injuries to two civilians and three firefighters. No fatalities occurred.
Residents of Jackson Oaks, Holiday Lake Estates and other east Morgan Hill neighborhoods were successfully evacuated as the fire grew in late August 2020, but the homes were spared.
Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine said when he was a firefighter for the City of San Jose, he and his colleagues “loved it” when CalFire showed up at the scene of a grass fire.
“Not only would you come in with dozers and helicopters, but you came with crews that knew how to cut a line,” Constantine said Aug. 3. “We appreciate not only the work of firefighters throughout the state and country, but also here.”
McKay also presented Hess on Aug. 3 with a custom trophy depicting the various roles that Hess played in the eyes of the Morgan Hill community: coach, leader, firefighter and all-around “great guy.”
Hess accepted the accolades on behalf of his crew and the firefighters—who numbered about 2,000 at one time—on the ground and in the air who contained the SCU Complex.
He also praised City of Morgan Hill officials and the police department for their teamwork in coordinating evacuations and public outreach.
Hess began his firefighting career with CalFire in San Benito County in 1995. He worked his way up the ranks at various stations in the Monterey Bay and Central Coast areas, and has been the Morgan Hill Fire Chief since 2018. He is also the chief of CalFire’s SCU division, which consists of 30 crews in five counties; and of the South Santa Clara County Fire Protection District.
The SCU Complex was by far the largest incident he has worked on. Hess said the basics of wildfire suppression—anchor and flank the flames—remain essential even for the largest fires. All the firefighters assigned to the SCU Complex were fully capable of applying those techniques, Hess said, but his job was managing the bigger picture.
“Really in my mind it’s simple: I’m just taking care of my people and setting the expectation that we need to look out for each other,” Hess said. “I like to think I bring calm to chaos, and (I’m) a good listener. I did a lot of listening.”
He also sought out advice from colleagues and other leaders, including CalFire Division Chief Jeff Veik, which proved valuable in attacking the SCU Complex fire.
Since last summer, the state has devoted more funding to CalFire and wildfire suppression efforts. The Santa Clara Unit has gained additional hand crews, including two California National Guard crews based in San Jose, from this funding, Hess said.