And, the award for Firefighter of the Year goes to … Marcus Murphy.
“He is a great man, totally deserving of this award,” said Administrative Assistant Rebecca L. Sanchez.
This honor was many years in the making, not just because Murphy became a volunteer firefighter before he even turned 18, but Murphy has been considered for the title close to a dozen times over the last 30 years, refusing the nomination every time.
Murphy explains, “My measure of success is in watching other firefighters prevail. Watching their careers progress is what makes me happy.”
So why now? “Well,” said Murphy, “I was nearly ordered by Fire Chief James Moore to accept.”
Murphy knew from an early age that he wanted to fight fire. His father, Marcus D. Murphy, was a lieutenant with the Susanville Police Department in the 1970s who had high hopes for his son to follow in his footsteps.
But the die was cast early on when he was in Cub Scouts with buddy Tommy Tomlinson. Tomlinson’s dad was a volunteer fire chief and Murphy thought that was pretty cool.
Also, he recalls in the old days, when the dispatch phone they kept at the house would ring and ring until someone answered it. So, one day when everyone else was out of the house and it seemed to ring endlessly, Murphy finally picked up.
Upon learning there was a fire at Eagle Lake, he showed up at the station with a couple of his buddies who all hitched a ride to the blaze hanging on to the tailboard of an engine.
On scene they manned fire hoses, maintaining the perimeter of The Eagle Lake burn.
“Things were different in those days,” recalls Murphy. He was just 15.
Also surprising is the fact that when the department received a surplus engine, Murphy was assigned to it. This was before his 18th birthday.
With his heart for service it is perhaps unsurprising that Murphy is also a veteran having served in the military with the National Guard from 1980 to1986.
However, the transition from owning a logging truck in 1989 to working for Redwood National Park in 1990 was a kind of culture shock. Murphy shares that it took a while to get in the same mindset of his fellow park rangers.
“Once I was communicating with a helicopter sent to a fire in the redwoods, he said. “The pilot asked where to fill up the bucket, and I sent him over to the ocean to scoop up 3,000 gallons of water to douse flames in the redwood forest. The fire was put out, but the ferns and other fragile growth were decimated in a 100 foot radius due to using salt water. So yeah, there was a learning curve.” He admits.
Most folks know Murphy as simply, Smurf. The origins of this nickname are quite simple. During his 20s, a buddy had a few too many beers and called out, “Smurf!” instead of Murphy because his speech was slurred. The name stuck and 30 some-odd years later, he still answers to it.
Marcus ‘Smurf’ Murphy has been with Susanville City Fire Department since 1988, promoting to lieutenant in 1992, captain in 2010 and assistant chief in 2019, so suffice it to say, he’s seen a lot.
When former bartender Jessica Post showed up one day and announced, “I’m going to be a firefighter by the end of the year,” even the always encouraging Smurf was not convinced.
“Look,” he told her, “do you know how many times I’ve heard that only to never see the person again?”
When he realized her commitment was sincere, Smurf and Susanville captain/training officer, Robert Brown were there to provide support. Smurf’s eyes shine with pride as he recounts how Post graduated with her fire accreditation from Shasta College within the year.
Assistant Chief Dan Weaver adds, “Murphy is dedicated to training and encouraging his fellow firemen. A huge part of his legacy is the many firefighters he has supported throughout their careers. Their success is a reflection of his dedication to mentoring others.”
Getting Smurf to talk about himself is difficult. Even his acceptance speech focused on motivating to others to attain their goals.
Heck, he doesn’t even take credit for his lifelong commitment to protecting others.
He’ll tell you, “There are 1,000 reasons not to fight fire and only one good reason to be out there — it picks you.”
One of the highlights he touts (besides saving lives) is the privilege of bringing beauty from ashes. He treasures being able to rescue family pets from a burning building and fondly recalls saving an entire collection of photos from one house for the owner.
He’s managed to avoid delivering a baby during his career but recalls a close call once where an ambulance showed up about 15 seconds after he was called into action. Smurf still looks relieved when he recalls announcing, “I’ll grab the gurney!”
His day job as equipment operator for BLM often calls for him to assist in fighting fire, too. Fighting fire remains his passion despite a decades-long battle with an infection caused by Klamath Crud — an ailment believed to originate from mold spores.
He hasn’t let that slow him down and anticipates fighting fire for at least one more year with his eye on breaking Shirley Stampfli’s record of 32 years as a volunteer fire fighter before deciding whether or not to go after Ted Freedline’s record of 34 years.
When he does retire, he plans to spend more time riding quads and enjoying his beloved family, which includes several great nieces and nephews.
Susanville Fire Chief Moore might have something to say about that, too. He notes, “The thing is that Smurf has never said no when it comes to helping anybody. Besides, ‘can’t’ is not in his vocabulary.”