by Megan Winslow, Los Altos Town Crier
One might say Jim Werner was destined for a firefighting career. He rode his first fire engine at age 3, a toy steered around the backyard of his parents’ Los Altos home. By age 6, “Smokey the Bear,” the classic tale of a black bear who teaches children about the danger of fire, had become Werner’s favorite book. And when the Santa Clara County Fire Department captain retired last month, he did so from the Loyola Fire Station, the same station that helped him license his first bicycle at age 9.
“It was a great career,” Werner said in an interview last week. “I feel immensely blessed. I’m very thankful for the Lord for providing this job.”
Werner, 62, hung up his helmet Nov. 6 after working 38 years as a firefighter. In that time, his tours included covering the 1985 Liddicoat Fire in Los Altos Hills, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm. He served with Los Altos Fire when the agency consolidated with the SCCFD in 1996, a development Werner salutes for providing access to more lifesaving tools and personnel.
Back then, both Werner’s parents still lived in south Los Altos, near Grant Park.
“I wanted to make sure, in my opinion, that they had the best service, and we did accomplish that, from my professional point of view,” he said.
Born in San Diego, Werner moved to Los Altos in 1959 with his parents and siblings. He attended Grant Elementary School, St. Simon Parish School, Cupertino Middle School, Homestead High School, De Anza College, San Jose State and Mission College in Santa Clara, where he earned his fire science degree.
It’s Werner’s long-standing relationship and familiarity with the Los Altos community and surrounding communities that made him such a valuable asset to SCCFD, said co-worker Brian Vierra, a firefighter/engineer. Vierra began working with Werner, his supervisor, in 2014.
Vierra recalls riding with Werner toward a Rancho San Antonio fire three or four years ago. The men could see the flames as they drove toward the blaze. Their directions indicated taking one route to the scene, but Werner insisted they take another, which shaved off valuable time.
“That was a memorable call for me, watching how it all works out and how his knowledge of the area and his dedication to service potentially saved tons of homes just by a split-second decision of turning left or right based on his experience,” Vierra said.
It takes 30 years of service for a Santa Clara County firefighter to retire with a full pension, but Werner kept at it – even after moving to Morgan Hill in 1991 – because he loved the work, said Josh Werner, his son.
“He really liked working in the town he grew up in,” Josh Werner said. “He took a lot of pride and ownership in covering the area he grew up in, and I think that kept him going so long.”
Werner’s departure doesn’t signal an end to his family’s SCCFD legacy, however. Josh Werner, 30, joined the department as a firefighter/engineer in 2017. Both men said working together has been the highlight of their careers; in August, they spent 48 hours on the same Loyola station tour. They responded to several medical calls and undertook some training during the shift.
“It’s been pretty special to follow in his footsteps and to be able to work with him in the same department,” Josh Werner said.
Werner said he plans to spend his retirement enjoying his expanding brood of grandchildren and traveling with his wife. The couple will cruise down the Rhine River with his siblings and their spouses this month. He may even take up backpacking again or sort through family keepsakes that have accumulated over the decades.
“I had a great ride, and in a way, I’m sorry it’s over, but there’s other things,” he said.