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The Mammoth Lakes Fire Department lost one of its finest this past week when Billy Anderson, 65, announced his retirement.
“He’s been a really good asset to the department for 40 years,” said Fire Chief Brent Harper.
Anderson, a native Southern Californian from Laguna Beach and Arcadia, spent 34 years working at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area as a health and safety director, but all along served as a volunteer with the Fire Department.
For the last seven years he was a full-time staffer, working as a division chief.
“It’s a budgetary kind of thing,” Anderson said. “They were going to have to lay off some people or cut 10 percent in wages, or maybe lay off part-time paid firefighters in the shoulder season.
“I just turned 65 and I was close to retirement. I thought I’d work until I was 68.
“I’ve given everything I have to the Fire Department, and they’ve been good to me, but at some point I figured I was going to have to retire.”
With Anderson gone, the fire crew is fundamentally changed. First, it will have to make do with three division chiefs, Harper said, with the three remaining division chiefs and he (Harper) filling in for Anderson.
Within the force itself, members of the weekly Thursday evening fire-training exercises at the fire station loses its leader.
“I’m going to miss the guys, for sure,” Anderson said. “It’s a great group of people.
“On a Thursday night at my trainings, we’ll have 45 people in that training room at the fire station, which is pretty good for a combination paid/volunteer Fire Department.
“We have a great commitment from the guys and gals in town.
“We try to keep it interesting,” Anderson said of the Thursday evening training sessions.
“We don’t get many fires so we have to train as if it’s the real thing so when we do, we’re ready for it.”
Anderson came to Mammoth first in 1963 to ski, then after a couple of years in college and fighting in Vietnam, Anderson came up as an employee at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
“I just fell in love with the place, and I’ve been here ever since.”
He also fell in love with a woman working retail at the ski area. Billy and Val (she worked for 38 years at the Mountain) married and have a son and a daughter.
As for his career at the ski area, Anderson said he had absolutely no regrets.
“There was no problems,” he said. “Everything in my life has kind of worked out. I left on my terms.”
Anderson worked the fire line on several big-time conflagrations, including the Rainbow Fire in August 1992.
With a total acreage burned of 8,765, the Rainbow Fire has gone down in local history as the worst fire ever, and yet, the fire never reached the town of Mammoth Lakes, thanks to people like Anderson who led a strike team at Red’s Meadow resort.
“I had all of the local fire agencies under my command at Red’s Meadow, and basically saved Bob Tanner’s business for him—at least that’s what he thinks.”
“We were down there for nine days. Bob said, ‘Let’s go down and see where this fire is,’ because it was all smoke then. It was about four in the afternoon. We rode toward Rainbow Falls and the wind was blowing 40 miles an hour. And I said that this is probably as far as we should go. The shoots of branches on the top were picking up fire, and by the time we got back, they’d run all the horses up to Agnew Meadows and Bob turned to me and said, ‘Billy, this place is all yours. Whatever you want is yours. The store is open, the kitchen and café are yours. Take care of your guys,’ and then he left.
“We spent the night down there and about the time we fixed up some hamburgers, we thought the fire was about an hour or so away.
“But the wind was blowing so hard that by the time I got back outside, there was fire in the corrals. That’s how quickly it moved across the tips of the trees—it was a crown fire. Every smoldering thing we saw we put water on it so nothing had a chance to get going. We did that all night long.”
A happy memory? No one would say it was a happy time for Mammoth or its fire crews.
But in the years since, the actions by Anderson and his crew at Red’s Meadow are permanently stitched into the town’s collective memory.
Today (Friday) he and Val are going to start the trip down to the Mexican coast just below the border, where they have a mobile home set up for vacations.
He said he’ll be back for this summer’s Canoe Races, and maybe do a little skiing one of these days.
But as of this week, Anderson is gone from the force, leaving a hole big enough to drive a fire truck through.