Calif. fire chief fired after complaints about misconduct

By Erin Tracy
Modesto Bee

MODESTO, Calif. The Chief of the Burbank-Paradise Fire District was fired Wednesday night following a unanimous vote by the district's board.

Mike Hillar, 55, who had been with the district for 26 years and was chief for seven, had been on unpaid leave since June 23.

In March, Scotty Douglass, the executive director of Stanislaus Regional 911, which dispatches for the district, sent Hillar a memo regarding "deprecating tone and language" he used with a dispatcher on a call the week before.

In the past few months there has been other correspondence regarding Hillar's alleged misconduct at scenes, according to several sources familiar with the situation who asked to remain anonymous.

The district's recently hired attorney, Rod Attebery of Neumiller & Beardslee in Stockton, said he would not discuss the reason for Hillar's termination.

Attebery confirmed the existence of correspondence from members of the public regarding Hillar, but said he would neither confirm nor deny if the letters had anything to do with Hillar's firing.

He said because Hillar was an at-will employee who could be fired without cause, there will be no investigation into claims made in any of the correspondence, including that sent by SR911.

The Bee has filed a public records request for any communication with the fire district concerning the former chief.

The board voted 4-0 in favor of Hillar's dismissal. Recusing herself from the vote was board member Pamela Hillar, Mike Hillar's wife. Neither could be reached for comment Thursday.

In his March 27 memo to Mike Hillar, Douglass notes a history of tension between the former chief and SR911.

"I have learned that you have been disappointed with SR911's service for many years, and on multiple occasions have made disparaging remarks about my agency," the memo reads. "I also know that there have been many attempts to work with you on improving the relationship between SR911 and your department that seem to be ineffective."

Hillar had called the dispatcher expressing jurisdictional concerns about why the Modesto Fire Department was first dispatched to a fire on West Hatch Road.

Modesto Fire was dispatched first because the initial caller reported the incident as a tree fire within Modesto Fire Department's jurisdiction. The second caller reported the correct location of the structure fire in Burbank Paradise Fire District area, at which point they were dispatched.

"There will be more to go on this because this is getting to the point where this is not correct," Hillar said the the dispatcher. "Why don't you just send (Modesto Fire Department) to everything on Hatch and then we will figure it out afterward."

Jurisdiction has been an issue for Hillar for years. In 2012, The Bee wrote a story about a fire that destroyed a duplex on Figaro Avenue.

Hillar requested assistance from Ceres Fire Department, three miles away, instead of Modesto Fire, five blocks away, because he said he had a better working relationship with Ceres.

The Modesto chief at the time, Mike Kraus, said he was very concerned by the decision and that the standard in the industry is to have the closest agencies respond first.

Since then Modesto Fire Department, along with three neighboring agencies, began participating in boundary drops, leading to the automatic dispatch of mutual aid from the closest neighboring agency.

Modesto Fire Department's Interim Chief Alan Ernst said he is familiar with a few incidents since then in which his staff expressed concern about Hillar releasing a Modesto engine company from an incident or asking them to leave in those situations where Modesto was dispatched first but the incident wound up being in Burbank Paradise Fire's jurisdiction.

In his memo Douglass requested another meeting with Hillar but he said Thursday that Hillar never responded. He said he intended to follow up with Burbank Paradise Fire Distirct's board but heard that Hillar had been placed on leave before he had the chance.

Attebery said his firm was hired by the board a week after Hillar was put on leave to help handle the matter. He said he also will be helping the district with general governance issues like putting its meeting agendas and minutes on its website, which they currently are not doing.

"I will remain counsel and help them now with their governance issues in terms of agendas and websites and being able to be transparent for the public and help (Interim Chief) Peter Golling through this transition," Attebery said. "There has been no direction or discussion in terms of filling the permanent position; that will be on the next month's agenda."

Mike Hillar was one of three paid employees at the mostly volunteer Burbank Paradise Fire District. He worked a 50-hour week and made $15 an hour plus a $400 chief's stipend.

Hillar was at Wednesday night's meeting and sat next to his wife during the brief open session before the board went into an approximately 90-minute closed session.

Several firefighters also attended the open session portion of the meeting, but no one spoke during public comment and no one wanted to provide comment to The Bee.

Copyright 2017 Modesto Bee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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