Civilian Mark Farias, who had served as fire chief since 2001, retired Monday, a moment he deemed bittersweet.
His firefighting role began when he enlisted in the Air Force, giving him approximately 40 years in the firefighting service.
“For 20 years, I’ve had a front row seat to the greatest show on earth,” Farias said in his retirement speech. “I got to watch real-life superheroes save lives, change lives, and make the world a freer and better place.
“When you’re constantly surrounded by people like this for that many years, it kind of makes you feel you’re part of The Avengers or the Justice League,” he said during a Jan. 22 retirement party. “I have loved my experiences with you guys in a way I’ll never love anything else, the things I got to do, the people I got to meet, the memories I got to make. But 20 years is a long time to do this job.”
During his stint as chief, his team supporting close to 300 space launch and missile launch operations and became the most awarded Fire and Emergency Services agency in the Department of Defense, capturing 114 awards.
The Vandenberg Fire Department boasts the only military agency with a “Hot Shot” team — a highly skilled firefighting crew specialized in battling wildland fires.
When the team fell victim to budget cuts and lost half of its positions, Farias fought to restore funding on a permanent basis, colleagues recalled.
That team doesn’t just battle blazes on base, but also responds to fires throughout Santa Barbara County and beyond. A number of former Vandenberg firefighters have landed jobs at various Central Coast fire departments through the years.
The Vandenberg Fire Department also became the first in the Air Force to be internationally accredited through the Commission for Fire Accreditation International, and developed programs now standard across the Air Force.
In early 2020, Farias was surprised to be named his agency’s honoree during the Santa Maria Elks Firefighters Appreciation Night.
“Our agency would like to recognize someone who has truly put service before self and led the charge with grace and determination,” Resource Division Chief Clemente Marrero said during the dinner event.
Farias became known for his love of comic books, which he credited with helping him learn English after moving from Germany to a rough neighborhood in Massachusetts.
A bad recruiting film directed him away from a planned law enforcement career and into the Air Force firefighting service — sparking a strong passion.
The gregarious leader known for his gift of gab, devotion to the rock group Kiss, and love for collecting comic books, Farias engendered loyalty even as firefighters moved to new assignments or retired.
During his retirement ceremony, Farias said he has always hated endings — the last day of summer, closing chapter of a great book or final episode of a favorite television show.
“So instead of saying good-bye, I want to say thank you. I stand before you here tonight humbled, blessed, honored and privileged to have had so many incredible people share this journey with me,” Farias said. “Together we laughed and we cried. We celebrated and we mourned.
“We watched the months turn into years and friends turn into family.”