Remembering Al Mazza

I saw a poster this week announcing the 5th annual Al Mazza Memorial Best Ball Golf Tournament, set for Friday, May 30, at Oakmont.

The event, sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Firefighters Association, is a way to honor the memory of a great Sonoman who not only served our community as a firefighter and fire chief for 33 years, but also served two, full four-year terms on the City Council, and two times as Sonoma’s mayor. And, during that time and after his service on the council, he continued to volunteer on behalf of local nonprofits.

I knew Al as the guy who could not just sit on the sidelines and complain about the way things were. He got involved and often led the effort to make things better, including the nonprofit organizations he led.

He grew up in Sonoma Valley and graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 1955, where he played football for the Dragons. He also served two years with the U.S. Army’s Third Armored Division, during which he was stationed in Germany.

In 1959, after returning home from the Army, Al joined the Sonoma Fire Department. He was named fire chief in 1970, and served in that position for 23 years. Despite its small size and limited budget, throughout his career Al managed the fire department as a model of best practices.

He is widely recognized as having been one of the most innovative fire chiefs in California, implementing – among other things – an integrated EMS service long before it became standard fire department procedure.

My friendship with Al began one fall day in 1969 after I had returned from service with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. I was working for the Index-Tribune and Al asked me if I would become a volunteer firefighter.

He said he had a lot of volunteers who worked out of town and could not respond to daytime calls. With only one paid engineer and himself on duty on most days, he needed volunteers.

He recruited me, Don Sebastiani and Wayne Peterson, among others, to fill out the fire crews he needed during the weekdays. Of course, we were also expected to show up for nighttime and weekend emergencies as well.

He believed in training, which is why we were also expected to drill every Thursday evening for several hours.

A few nights after my first drill, Central Screw, a machine shop located where the parking lot of Sebastiani Winery is today, exploded into flames. I was on the first truck. We could see the flames from four blocks away, and when we turned off East Napa Street onto Fourth Street East, the heat from the raging fire hit us in the face.

I had never been close to anything like that before, and the heat was so intense I thought I was going to burst into flames. Central Screw was too far gone by the time we arrived, so our main job was to project Sebastiani Winery. It was so hot, other volunteers sprayed those of us protecting the winery with water so we wouldn’t catch on fire.

That first fire was almost my last, but I stuck with the volunteers because of Al. Every year the volunteer corps of firefighters got stronger and better trained. We believed in Al and what he was trying to do.

After he retired, Al’s public life continued to be dedicated to community service, marked by impartial pragmatism and a spirit of inclusive leadership.

Al passed away in 2010, after a year-long battle with cancer. Every week, I drive by the new fire station on Second Street West named in his honor, smile and remember this exceptionally dedicated, kind and loyal friend and leader, who gave so much back to the community he loved.

There are at least two ways to remember Al. Call 495-4207 and sign up for the golf tournament, or send a donation to the firefighters association for the annual July 4 fireworks display, a program Al started while he was chief. Go to svfra.org/fireworks.