Human Interest

Even though he knew this day was coming, Gary Johnson said one is never truly prepared for retirement.

“I’m not getting done with all the stuff I had hoped to have done by now,” he said, with a grin. “With any job, you always have stuff in the queue. I was pretty optimistic a month ago that I’d get everything done. But it’s started to sink in to some degree because I’m having to pay attention to the date. It will really set in when I get up on that first Monday and realize I don’t have to go to work today.”

For the last 39 years Johnson has worn a variety of hats for the Sedona Fire District including that of fire marshal, a position he’s held the last five years. He will be retiring on Thursday,
Jan. 5, during a walk-out ceremony that’s expected to be emotional for not only him but his fellow firefighters.  

“Gary has been instrumental in so many parts of our organization,” SFD Chief Kris Kazian said. “He is a legend in the community and well respected in the Arizona fire prevention and investigation services — he will be greatly missed.”

Johnson came to Sedona in 1978 because his wife Teresa’s family lived here. At the time they were living in Long Beach, Calif., where Johnson worked as a division manager for Sears. After moving to the Village of Oak Creek, he became a volunteer firefighter for the Red Rock Fire District. At that time the district was broken into two based on the county line — the other being the Sedona Oak Creek Fire District.

Shortly after that he bought a Holsum Bread route, one he’d have for 17 years while continuing to serve as a volunteer firefighter. In 1995 he was hired full-time as SFD’s first fire inspector. He served in that position under former fire marshal Will Loesche for 16 years until 2011 when Loesche left to serve in the same position for Golder Ranch Fire District near Tucson.

“It was a very busy and interesting time in Sedona, especially in those early years when we worked together,” Loesche said. “It was quite the learning curve for both of us. We had a lot of adventures together when it came to both fire investigations as well as the fact there was a lot of new construction in town and the trials and tribulations that went along with that.

“During an investigation we could often read each other’s minds. He was my right-hand man and I was fortunate to have worked with him for so long. Sedona is better for him having been there.”

Like Loesche did for him, Johnson has passed his knowledge of the job and area onto Deputy Fire Marshal Jon Davis, who will be taking Johnson’s position.

“Gary is not only very knowledgeable about the fire code in general but the amount of institutional knowledge that he possesses is tremendous,” Davis said. “He is intimately familiar with businesses, water systems, specific fire protections systems and people throughout the fire district. His departure will leave a big hole that will be difficult to fill. Luckily, he is not leaving the area and will only be a phone call away.”

When he started as a volunteer 39 years ago, Johnson said Sedona could be best described as a sleepy little town. And despite the separate fire districts, both would often come together as one to help with fires or other incidents. As the town grew, the departments hired full-time paramedics to assist with calls. Eventually the two districts formed to create the Sedona Fire District.

The role of a fire marshal and fire inspector is broken into three categories: Code enforcement of new and existing construction, public education and fire investigation.

“Those are the three major components,” Johnson said. “Pretty much everything we do can be put into one of those three categories. In addition, the position serves as public information officer.”

Looking back over the last four decades, he paused when asked about the most memorable fire he took part in either as a firefighter or investigator. He went all the way back to 1985, which involved a hangar fire at the Sedona Airport.

“That’s what I refer to as my first big fire,” Johnson said. “I still remember it and all the challenges we had in fighting it.”

He said he used those experiences earlier in his career when being promoted to inspector and then marshal. While education and experience plays a big part in finding the cause of a fire, so does something else — gut instinct.

“Typically a fire doesn’t destroy everything,” he said. “It leaves signs that lead you to determine its cause and origin. Part of what comes into play is experience. One of the advantages for a fire investigator to having been a firefighter is that they really understand how fires react and move.

“I learned something new with every fire. I’ve had fires where my gut has told me ‘this is what happened’ but I can’t prove it. I’ve had more than one of those. When I come up with a final origin and cause, I have to support it with hard evidence because I have standards that I have to meet.”

Johnson was planning to retire this past August but agreed to stay on as the hiring process to fill not only his position but that of fire inspector did not produce candidates they were looking for. But the decision to retire is one he’s been thinking about for a while.

“I started to burn out,” he admitted. “Plus, I want to spend more time with my family. I’ve seen too many people who work too long and then something happens physically and then they’re unable to do all things they had been planning to do. We plan to travel [including to see their daughter and her family in Germany]. I currently teach at Yavapai College and continue to do that. And yes, there is always the honey-do list.”

As for what he’ll miss most, without hesitation he said the people — both staff and those he comes into contact with on a daily basis while in public. That same public is invited to attend his walk-out ceremony at 3 p.m. at Fire Station 1.

“After nearly four decades of service to our community, I hope people come out to show their appreciation for all he has done — from delivering bread and a volunteer firefighter back in the day to the fire professional he is today,” Kazian said. “His knowledge and experience will leave a big hole for the organization.”


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