HANFORD — Clay Smith said he considered retiring after more than 30 years as a fireman, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become the Kings County Fire Department’s new chief.
Smith worked for the department for 32 years before leaving in 2013 to take a job as a division chief for the Tulare County Fire Department.
When Smith learned Kings County Fire Chief Bill Lynch was retiring, he toyed with the idea of applying for the job. Smith said he spoke with Lynch at a local conference and was impressed by some the projects Lynch had started, such as increasing staffing at the county’s single-person fire stations.
The Kings County Board of Supervisors recently approved funding for six new firefighter positions to get two of the county’s four single-staffed stations up to two personnel 24/7.
“When I started here in 1981, we had 12 stations with only three having more than one person,” Smith said. “To actually be a part of getting two people at each station, completing the project Chief Lynch started, was very appealing.”
Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon said the board interviewed several qualified candidates for the job. Verboon said the board was looking for a candidate who could work well with fire department staff and the Board of Supervisors.
“We just had good feelings about Clay when we interviewed him,” Verboon said.
Smith started his new job on Nov. 7.
Smith began his career in 1978, at the age of 17, working as a paid-call firefighter at the Tulare County Fire Department station in his hometown of Exeter. He was routinely excused from class at Exeter High School when his pager called him out to a fire.
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“We’d leave class, go to the fire and come back to class when it was over,” Smith said. “And it was all allowed. Usually the first thing the teacher would ask was, ‘What was it?’ Everybody was interested.”
Smith was hired with the Kings County Fire Department in November 1981 as a fire apparatus engineer at the Kettleman City fire station. The station was one of the few in the county with more than one person on duty.
After 19 years, he became a captain at the Burris Park Fire Station in Kingsburg. At that time, the department had strict rules requiring battalion chiefs to live in the areas they served. As a lifelong Tulare County resident, Smith said, he feared his career was at a standstill.
That policy was eventually changed three years later due to the difficulty of filling the positions.
“I was the first person that they hired as a battalion chief that lived outside of the county,” Smith said. “From my location in Visalia, I was able to make it to portions of Kings County faster than the battalion chiefs who lived down in Corcoran or the Island District.”
Verboon said he’s hopeful Smith can continue the work that Lynch started. He said the Kings County Fire Department is in good shape, having recently deployed three new fire engines paid for by grant money and a donation from the Tachi Yokut tribe. It’s unclear how the county will find funding to staff the remaining single-person fire stations.
“Measure K not passing was a pretty big downer,” Verboon said. “Our plan was to use those funds for that.”
Measure K was a sales tax initiative on the June and November ballots. The measure would have raised about $4 million per year for public safety agencies countywide to pay for new personnel, facilities, equipment and programs.