Where I Stand: Observing Johns through a ‘baptism by fire’

By Debra Moore

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During the height of last summer’s fires, I ended up in the emergency room. Coworkers thought I was having a stroke, but it was diagnosed as exhaustion and dehydration after two months of continuous fire coverage that began with the Beckwourth Complex. I only mention this because the workload that I experienced trying to keep the public informed through myriad evacuations was nothing compared to that of Sheriff Todd Johns who had to first make the decision to order those evacuations that upend people’s lives and then carry them out. I felt the stress to report the information timely and accurately, while he had to make the actual life-and-death decisions. That is not hyperbole; homes and communities burned. I put in long hours, but they were from the comfort of my home or office, while Johns was in the midst of it all.

Before he was appointed Sheriff, I had never worked directly with Todd Johns and didn’t know what to expect. In my role as editor, I work closely with the sheriff, particularly when disaster strikes. Lately that has been fire. I did so with Sheriff Greg Hagwood during the Minerva Fire, and I did so with Todd Johns during the Claremont/Bear fires of 2020, and then through last year’s fires that lasted for months.

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Both men were exceptional in taking the time to answer my questions and sharing important information. Most often when I called Todd Johns he was out somewhere in the county. The first time I called during the Beckwourth Complex, he was helping evacuate areas of the Sierra Valley. During the Dixie Fire, I spoke to him while he was heading down the Canyon, driving to Chester, working with residents in Indian Valley, and a myriad other places. Johns devoted himself to protecting this county and its residents. I have heard him say privately and publicly that he is proud of the fact that despite the scope and devastation of the Dixie Fire, no lives were lost. I observed a man who deeply cares about what happens to the residents throughout this county.

And though the flames have been doused, the aftermath prevails.

That aftermath includes rebuilding and bringing necessary resources to the county. It’s helpful when someone can call the leadership at OES, FEMA, CalFire, the Forest Service, or even the governor, to get an issue addressed. Such calls depend on relationships. Good working relationships can develop over time, or, as with this case, by dealing with an unprecedented crisis. Johns has his phone calls returned.

Some of the roles Johns has assumed in the fire’s aftermath might be beyond the purview of a typical sheriff, but he also leads the Office of Emergency Services for the county. Additionally, and this is critical, without a county administrative officer, or another point person, he is helping lead the recovery effort. Board Chairman Kevin Goss and District Attorney David Hollister are also playing key roles.

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One can debate the merits of the two candidates for sheriff, but a concern has to be timing. Should leadership in this key role be changed at this pivotal time? There is always a learning curve.

It’s sad that the race for Sheriff has devolved, and now, no matter who wins, there will be damage to repair. With all of the challenges that this county faces, we didn’t need to add more. This is going to be a busy summer after a two-year hiatus for most events (Johns also had to deal with the pandemic), and we are going to need our sheriff’s office to be there and not distracted by this election’s aftermath.

Johns could retire from the Sheriff’s Office, but he wants to continue to serve — to help the county rebuild and to implement the community programs he had hoped to before COVID and fires postponed those plans. Based on what I have observed during these unprecedented times, Todd Johns has proven himself during what could appropriately be termed a “baptism by fire” and deserves to be elected to serve a full term as Sheriff.