Fire in his eye is the Baja sunset
Breakfast is prepared for the crew in the firehouse on weekends and on Sunday Engineer Rich Owens volunteered to cook.
After 30 years of saving lives and putting out fires, Owens wanted to do something special for his second-to-last shift.
“This is the last breakfast,” the 53-year-old said, after he pushed away the plate that had offered an everything-in-the-‘fridge omelette. “I did it out of sentimentality. It brings a tear to my eye. Or maybe it’s an onion.”
Keen observation, with a dash of irreverence – that’s Owens.
It was a spicy, poignant meal.
“This could be all I could do all day and I’d be in ecstasy,” Owens said. “We made it through breakfast without a call. That’s a good sign.”
The life of a firefighter goes from hours of downtime studying, training and cleaning to moments of urgent, lifesaving situations. A calm mindset, good health and black humor to help deal with the severe profession helped Owens throughout his 22 1/2 years at South Lake Tahoe after cutting his teeth for seven in Santa Barbara.
For example, Owens’ crew once responded to a call for a woman who had a miscarriage. It ended in being one of five childbirths in Owens’ career. He found the woman sitting on a toilet.
“She thought she was having a movement.” he said. “It was a baby. I wasn’t expecting it to be alive.”
Owens pulled the young swimmer, whom he refers to as “Johnny Weissmuller,” from the water and pinched the umbilical cord until the ambulance arrived. “It seemed like hours but it was probably only a couple of minutes,” he said. The baby was fine.
Then there was a time when Owens was in a dark storage attic of what is now Chevy’s Restaurant. He stepped through a hole and felt his feet giving way on the ceiling of the dining area where people were eating. “I was just trying to think of something to say if I landed on a table,” said Owens, who is seldom at a loss for words.
If he had been born at a different time, Owens might have made a career out of volleyball. As it is, he logged one of the South Shore’s most successful coaching tenures. He guided South Tahoe High School to three Nevada finals matches before winning the state crown in 1990. He later led Whittell to three zone championships in four seasons.
Owens learned the game growing up in Santa Monica, where he excelled in football and basketball.
“After school, the coaches would go the the beach and play volleyball and drink beer, and I would watch them,” said Owens, who went on to became an accomplished player. But he came along before there were college scholarships and pro beach volleyball, so he worked his way through college.
After earning a degree from Cal State Northridge in English and history, Owens began working toward a teaching credential, simultaneously working at a gas station.
It was at the gas station where he befriended a fireman, who encouraged him to take a firefighting test. After blanketing Southern California with job applications, Owens in 1973 received an offer from the city of Santa Barbara.
Comparing teaching to firefighting, “I thought, do I want to work four or five days out of 10, or do I want summers off?” Owens said. “It took about three seconds to decide.”
The experience Owens gained in the urban area, especially by acquiring medical training, proved invaluable to the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department.
“Santa Barbara was way ahead of us on the learning curve for medical training,” said Battalion Chief Scott Douglass. “Rich helped get us where we need to be a little quicker.”
While visiting Tahoe for some indoor volleyball events, Owens was encouraged by a local firefighter to consider moving here.
“It’s a life decision you make on the spur of the moment, on a whim,” Owens said. “Now here’s another one – I think I’ll retire.”
The department, which is anticipating a slew of retirements in the next couple of years, won’t be the same.
“When you lose a guy like Rich, with his wide variety of experience, you lose a valuable resource,” Douglas said. “He added another dimension and that type of experience assisted in shaping the entire department.”
In addition to monitoring skills, his background in English landed him the role of grant writer. He also speaks a bit of Spanish, which often helps at rescue scenes.
“It was nice having him there to speak Spanish,” said firefighter/paramedic Roger Coeck, back at the bantering breakfast table. “But that’s about all we’ll miss him for.”
Moreover, Owens will be speaking a lot more Spanish at his part-time home in Cabo San Lucas.
Owens plans to spend winters swimming and sailing in Mexico, restoring cars during autumns and springs in Las Vegas, and hanging out summers in Montana, where he might do a bit of volleyball coaching.
“Cabo sounds pretty nice,” Josh Birnbaum said.
Owens agreed, satisfied with his accomplishments, his career and his time in Tahoe, yet happy to be moving on and retiring at a young age.
“If there is reincarnation, I did some things well in my previous life,” Owens reflected. “I just wish I could remember them.”
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