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Westport chief retiring after 42 years
Gary Thompson is stepping down Thursday as chief of the Westport Fire Protection District after 42 years of service.

Thompson, 64, joined the department in 1968 as a volunteer firefighter and leaves as fire chief, the third of the small rural district formed in 1962 to help fight fires and tend to other emergencies in the area southwest of Ceres. The district's lone station sits yards from Westport Elementary School, Ceres Unified School District's most remote school.

Retirement is due to a combination of factors.

"Part of it is I'm not quite as sharp as I used to be, plus we have a new granddaughter and I want to spend more time with family. The other thing with all this OSHA stuff it's getting to the point where I don't want to deal with it."

Wearing the administrator's hat has meant less time to do what he enjoys - rolling out to fire calls. Aside from tending to his almond and pistachio crop, Thompson hopes to stay active with the department, helping out where he can, fetching things during fires, taking photos of incidences or even moving fire apparatus.

Thompson has served as chief since March 1, 1989 when Loren McCleskey retired. The first chief was his father-in-law, Merle Garber, who served from 1962 to 1978. John Barindelli will be taking over as the new chief.

"He's been a super fire chief," said Ed Amador, a member of the board. "A pleasure to work with. I've learned a lot from him. He's brought professionalism to the fire department. He always made sure the guys were provided with the right safety equipment with the budget we have."

Westport still operates as a volunteer department. The 18 volunteers are primarily young people who live outside the area who are trying to get the experience to become paid firefighters elsewhere.

"We've got a good bunch of guys and a good training program and we have enough call volume that they get to see some things," said Thompson.

When Thompson started, the department's volunteers were mostly farmers who would drop everything to run to the station for a call.

Thompson himself is technically a volunteer though he was paid a $500 per month stipend to take care of the administrative paperwork and "extra wear and tear but no wages."

Gary got into fire service in a different era. In those days volunteers were suited to take on the 40 to 50 calls per year. Now Westport is answering approximatel 400 calls a year. "Most of it's medical aid. About 60 to 70 percent medical aid and accidents."

Thompson would like to assist Westport in its talks about regionalizing service.

"Several departments are merging. We're not sure we'll be participating but it's possible."

The department is primarily looking at merging with Modesto, Salida and the county fire warden's office.

With an annual budget of #128,000, Westport has increasing struggled with finances, especially as Ceres annexes land on the west side, taking property tax revenues from Westport. Amador said an example was the property taxes lost when the G-3 Enterprises (formerly Procter & Gamble) property was taken by Ceres. Ceres was required to make Westport "whole up to that point but we get no increases," he added.

Over the years the one incident that affected him most was the 1977 loss of firefighter John Wigt in a Honor Farm fire in which three others were hurt.

Thompson didn't want a lot of attention to his retirement, said Amador, but the department is hosting an open house for Thompson from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 6. Cake and ice cream will be served.