When strong winds rip through Oak Park, as they did earlier this week, the crew at Medic Engine Company 36C is ready for anything.
Named the Ventura County Fire Department’s Fire Company of the Year for 2018, the three-man station on Deerhill Road bears a heavy responsibility. In its 5.2 square miles of unincorporated east county jurisdiction, the team provides emergency services for 14,245 residents.
“We’re it—the only governmental agency in Oak Park,” Capt. Chuck Scherrei said.
The threat of wind-driven fires is a big concern in Oak Park. Many homes back up against rugged hillside terrain, where brushy vegetation hasn’t burned in decades. Protecting this “wild land-urban interface,” as firefighters call it, is a high priority. On windy days, the crew at 36C is ready to roll at the first sign of smoke.
“With each passing year, it gets a little more disconcerting,” Scherrei said. “We have a lot of homes that go right up into that wild land-urban interface, just fingers of homes that go up there, and we all saw what just
Fortunately, the station’s crew members—Scherrei, fire engineer Michael Williams and firefighter-paramedic Bill Thomas— are able to rely on plenty of help. Firefighters from nearby stations can arrive in Oak Park within minutes of a wildfire, Scherrei said.
But the team isn’t confined to Oak Park. With both Scherrei and Williams certified as emergency medical technicians and Thomas ranked as a firefighter-paramedic, the station is rated as an advanced life support engine company capable of lending valuable backup when called in to assist other stations in the county.
The median age of Oak Park’s residents is 41, so critical mediartists cal calls don’t come in often. But all three crew members are trained to deliver babies.
“It’s a fairly young community,” Scherrei said. “A lot of the residents are drawn here by the schools. Oak Park has great schools.”
The three station members also are certified in swift-water rescue, search and rescue, and hazardous materials, but their primary duty is firefighting.
“We’re an all-hazard station,” said Scherrei, 44, a Ventura resident who grew up in Thousand Oaks and graduated from Thousand Oaks High School.
Every year, VCFD honors outstanding employees and hands out the award for Fire Company of the Year. Honorees were scheduled to receive their awards during a March 22 ceremony at the Padre Center in Camarillo, but rainstorms and the threat of flooding forced cancellation of the event.
The awards ceremony is now set to take place May 17.
After graduating from California Polytechnic State College, Scherrei went to work for Amgen in Newbury Park. He stayed there for seven years until his lifelong dream of following in the footsteps of his firefighter father got the better of him.
“You only get one shot around, and I wanted to pursue my dream,” said Scherrei, a father of four who joined VCFD in 2004 and was promoted to captain three years ago.
When Williams, 47, was growing up in Simi Valley, he dreamed of becoming a musician, but that wasn’t panning out. One day while attending college, he decided to drop by a local fire station. He quickly became hooked by the profession.
Williams worked as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service for one season and decided to pursue it as a career. He returned to school to become an emergency medical technician and then a paramedic, joining VCFD as a firefighter-paramedic in 2000. The Oak Park resident was promoted to engineer in 2015.
Thomas, 61, grew up in Long Beach and graduated from Millikan High. He attended Cal Lutheran University in 1974, but couldn’t settle on a career that interested him. That changed when he began training to become a paramedic.
He went to work for a private ambulance company in 1984 and joined VCFD in 1999. He became a firefighter-paramedic in 2001. The Moorpark resident has also serves as a paramedic preceptor and, as well as the department’s public information officer and its terrorism liaison officer.
“The department is great about offering you opportunities to enhance yourself and to get different qualifications and different types of training,” he said. “If you’re smart, you take advantage of it.”