Outgoing chief welcomes retirement
No matter what the calendar says, Oct. 1 begins the first in a never ending series of Saturdays for retiring South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Jim Plake.
Plake, 53, is one of three department heads whose jobs is being eliminated under the sweeping cuts recommended by the city’s Destination 2000 committee.
The outgoing chief’s eyes light up when he describes his plans for a retirement party – a casual affair with dancing and rock and roll music.
The music selection is appropriate for a man whose life resembles words from a famous rock and roll song.
When Plake moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1967, his sights were set on becoming a high school football coach.
He ended up supervising a teams in a different sport – the fire department – for more than half of his 30 year career.
More than a decade ago, Plake targeted Dec. 17, 1997 as his projected retirement date to coincide with his 30th anniversary with the city fire department.
The city’s budget reduction plan forced him to move this date up by two months. Based on his time, the chief’s retirement benefits will be close enough to the maximum that he is not worried about finances.
Jim Plake does not always get what he wants.
But he gets what he needs.
Some people dream of becoming firefighters all their lives.
Not Plake, the son of a Bureau of Reclamation engineer.
Shortly after graduating from the University of Montana, where he played halfback for the football team, Plake brought his first wife and children to South Lake Tahoe.
Working nights in a gas station, a friend suggested that he apply for the opening with the city fire department in the fall of 1967.
“I could do shift work and go skiing in the days,” Plake explained, recounting his thoughts at the time.
With America’s military involvement in Vietnam, Plake did not want to begin a formal career with the possibility of the draft looming.
The future chief, then 23, passed his physical and agility tests on a Saturday and reported for his first shift the following Monday.
In 1969, Plake was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Stationed in Korea for most of his tour, he described his primary assignment as playing football until his discharge in 1971.
He was eligible for promotion to fire captain shortly after his return to South Lake Tahoe.
Throughout the 1970s, Plake wrestled with the idea of returning to school or a career change. He obtained a master’s degree in public administration through an extension program affiliated with the Univesity of San Francisco.
But the only career changes that materialized were promotions within the fire department.
In October 1992, Plake became the city’s fourth fire chief.
Unlike his predecessors and counterparts in other departments, Plake has never had a reputation for being a stern disciplinarian.
But his laid-back style is credited for boosting morale.
“It’s a pretty relaxed atmosphere,” says Capt. Scott Douglas, a 15-year veteran of the department. “That relaxed atmosphere tends to let us get our job done quicker and smoother. It’s not a bad environment to work in.”
Plake jokes that his greatest accomplishment as a chief is retiring.
He also feels satisfaction in knowing that his departure will help prevent reductions in line level staffing.
By consolidating administration of the police and fire departments, the city will trim more than $300,000 from its operating budget without laying off firefighters or patrol officers.
“I feel fortunate that I am able to be part of the (city’s budget reduction) solution,” Plake said.
The fire chief believes that the greatest challenges for the department will come from fire risk within the Tahoe Basin’s unhealthy forests and maintaining service within the city’s budget constraints.
Plake’s greatest challenges may be finding time to pursue all his hobbies – piloting an airplane, cycling, skiing, working on his Smith Valley ranch and spending time with his family – including his son, ski legend Glen Plake, and daughter, Tammy.
With no more obligations to the job, he uses the word Saturday to describe his future.
“I’ve never had a problem with Saturdays,” he says, with a wink. “If I get tired of Saturdays, I’ll go on vacation. When I get back from vacation, it’ll be Saturday again.”
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