Orange fire chief calls it a career

By Greg Mellen

When the City of Orange honored outgoing Fire Chief Jack Thomas, the mutual respect and genuine friendships between police and fire were on display.

Thomas, who became a firefighter in the City of Orange in 1988, after an earlier stint as a volunteer Explorer with the city, called it a career Thursday, Sept. 6, at Fire Station 1.

Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas and his wife, Lesa, smile as friends wish him well during his retirement gathering at Fire Station 1.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

A crowd of about 120 fire, police, and city employees, along with friends and family, gathered for a jovial send-off to the chief.

However, what stood out was the bond fire and police forged under Thomas and his opposite number, Police Chief Thomas Kisela.

“It’s somewhat unique, PD and fire having such a good relationship,” Kisela said.

The City of Orange’s new Fire Chief Doug Fackiner talks about his predecessor, Fire Chief Jack Thomas, during Thomas’ retirement gathering.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The police chief joked that he hated to lose Thomas, 56, after “just getting him straightened out.”

As the 5-foot-something Kisela approached the lectern for parting remarks, a fireman called out, “Hey, stand up!”

Such is the comfortable relationship the two departments have forged.

Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas holds a retirement gift during a gathering in his honor.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“Where else can you go where someone can say that to a chief and get a good laugh?” Kisela asked.

Among the legacies Thomas leaves from his tenure as chief is a close bond with police that his successor, Doug Fackiner, who rises from deputy chief to fill his shoes, inherits.

Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas holds a retirement gift presented to him by Public Works Director Christopher Cash, left.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Thomas said the departments’ working relationship was put to the test and succeeded spectacularly during the Canyon 2 Fire in October 2017.

“Our two departments worked together seamlessly,” Thomas said, noting that they were able to evacuate residents, keep areas clear for fire crews, and only two structures were lost to the blaze.

“Our command staff were together within 15 minutes,” he said, after word went out of the fire spreading.

Orange Police Chief Thomas Kisela talks about his friend, retiring Fire Chief Jack Thomas, with Thomas’ wife, Lesa, right.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Under Thomas and Kisela, the departments regularly conduct active shooter drills, co-manage community events, and occasionally face off in friendly competitions, such as the annual track meet the departments stage.

About the collaboration Thomas said, “In a city our size that’s huge.”

“When we need each other, we’re there,” Kisela said.

Retiring Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas, left, is presented with his fire department badges in each of his ranks as he moved up in the department framed behind glass by Orange Firefighter Miguel Gonzalez, center, and Capt. Casey Fieldhouse.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

This theme was echoed by Fackiner, who is close enough with Kisela that their families go camping and biking in the desert together.

“I’d put our relationships up against any other city in the county,” Fackiner said. “We want to keep that collaboration going.”

Fackiner said Thomas was very effective at working with all departments in the city and has helped introduce him to department heads and City Council members throughout the city.

Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas holds his 3-year-old granddaughter Liv Reynolds with his wife, Lesa Thomas, behind him.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“He really epitomized the collaboration with other departments,” Fackiner said.

Like Thomas, Fackiner is a homegrown talent, joining the department in 1989 and rising through the ranks. He has been deputy chief since 2014.

Thomas and Kisela came to their respective departments at similar times in the late 1980s and followed nearly parallel careers advancing to positions of leadership.

“We are very fortunate to have an excellent working relationship,” Kisela said. “And that flows from the top down and the bottom up.”

Councilman Mike Alvarez, left, Mayor Pro Tem Mark Murphy, Mayor Teresa “Tita” Smith, and Councilwoman Kim Nichols honor retiring Fire Chief Jack Thomas.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

As a young man, Thomas had no desire to join the fire department. However, after meeting his wife-to-be Lesa, Thomas was introduced to firefighting by Larry Wampler, his future father-in-law, who would retire as a captain at the Orange Fire Department.

Thomas said his experiences in the volunteer Fire Explorer program also inspired his twin brother, Jeff Thomas, to get into firefighting. Jeff Thomas recently retired as a battalion chief with the Anaheim Fire Department.

After joining the Orange Fire Department, Thomas advanced from paramedic to fire engineer, fire captain, administrative captain, battalion chief, and finally fire chief in 2015.

Retiring Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas, left, is presented with a gift by Orange Mayor Teresa “Tita” Smith.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

One of Thomas’ retirement gifts was a street sign from Public Works that read on one side “Enemy of Fun.” The nickname may have arisen, in part, from Thomas’ stint overseeing the department’s budget.

During his career, Thomas was deployed to many local wildfires and even joined a California task force that traveled to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thomas was also a strike team leader, directing five-engine companies to battle blazes, including the 2009 Station Fire.

Thomas said he doesn’t have any specific goals or plans for retirement just yet beyond spending time with his family and grandchildren and possibly working on his golf game.

The City of Orange’s new Fire Chief Doug Fackiner, left, presents retiring Fire Chief Jack Thomas with a retirement badge.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

A 5-handicap player, Thomas said he isn’t worried about lowering his score as long as he stays ahead of his brother.

A number of family members attended the retirement ceremony, including Lesa Thomas, the couple’s three children, and two grandkids. Also on hand was one of Thomas’ nephews, Evan Smith, who has been a policeman with Orange for 5 years.

Although Smith said his uncle tried to talk him into being a firefighter, he was committed to police work, saying, “Our whole family is in public service. It may be different badges, but we’re all one family.”

Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas gives his farewell speech.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Thomas said when Smith came to decide between offers to work for multiple agencies, he urged him to join the Orange Police Department.

The sense of family between the police and fire departments is something Fackiner hopes to continue.

“It’s worth noting that both departments have grown up in the City of Orange,” Fackiner said. “We want to encourage and foster the same relationships. We have (something) special.”