Firefighting his ‘calling’: Former Division Chief takes Watsonville Fire’s top job

Rudy Lopez Sr. has been named Interim Chief for Watsonville Fire. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE — When he was about 8, Rudy Lopez plied the streets of downtown Watsonville, a shoeshine box under his arm, as he tried to earn money at about 10 cents per shine. With luck, his customers would pay a quarter.

His rèsumè includes several other positions, including four years as a letter carrier. But the job he has kept since 1990 – the one he calls his life’s calling – is with the Watsonville Fire Department.

Lopez, 55, was named Interim Chief last month, filling the space vacated by Pablo Barreto.

His rise to the helm of the department follows a four-year stretch as Division Chief and Fire Marshall.

“I am extremely honored and privileged to serve in this capacity,” he said.

Lopez said he knew he wanted to be a part of the department from the moment he walked into a recruiting orientation when he was 27.

“I was sold,” he said. “I knew that was my calling.”

A Watsonville native, Lopez attended Radcliff Elementary School and E.A. Hall Middle School. He earned a GED in 1981, the same year he was supposed to graduate from Watsonville High School. He later earned a high school equivalency diploma.

Lopez said his family worked in the agricultural fields and canneries. His parents divorced when he was young, and he lived apart from his siblings, often with different relatives.

His path through high school took a turn when he became a father at 16, with the girl – his junior high school sweetheart – who would become his wife. Still together, they have three adult children.

A self-described “delinquent” as a young man, Lopez said he frequently found himself in trouble before he turned his life around.

That came thanks to the teachers, counselors and religious leaders who took the time to talk to him.

“People who took the time to give me hope,” he said.

And so, in addition to his work as a firefighter, he frequently visits schools to talk about his job, his life challenges and the people who helped shape who he is.

“My message to adults is, take the time to speak to young people,” he said. “Teach young people. Influence young people in a positive way.

“My mission in life until I take my last breath is going to speak to people and share my life experiences so they can learn from my journey.”

He said his goal as a leader is to build trust, both with the community and with the department.

“People hold us up pretty high in our society, and we have a responsibility to do the best we can to meet those expectation, and to earn and maintain that trust,” he said. “That same trust applies to the firehouses.”

Lopez takes the top position in a time of economic stability for the department, thanks largely to measure G, a half-cent ales tax approved by voters in 2014.

WFD hired six firefighters thanks to the measure, in addition to two new engines, each costing about $535,000. A $1.4 million tiller truck is currently being built.

But the measure is sunsetting in 2021, taking with it $4 million annual tax revenue. City leaders are currently mulling whether to bring the issue back to voters.

Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker said the interim position will last for six months, at which point the City will determine the process for filing the position permanently. 

Barreto was named interim chief after Mark Bisbee left. The city council made his position permanent after the period ended.

“Chief Lopez is a humble and community oriented leader,” Huffaker said. “He has served the Fire Department and community for over 29 years, starting as a reserve Firefighter in 1990. For the last few years, Rudy has served in the role of Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal. In addition to his extensive experience in the Fire service, Chief Lopez grew-up in the community and has deep roots in Watsonville.”

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