A respected fire chief with a blunt-talking reputation has emerged as the consensus choice to serve as the interim leader of the beleaguered Orange County Fire Authority, sources say.

Jeffrey R. Bowman, who has served as fire chief in Anaheim, San Diego and Oceanside, reportedly is the favored candidate to assume the top post at the Fire Authority, which serves 23 cities in addition to the county’s unincorporated areas.

Bowman would replace Chief Keith Richter, who announced his retirement in June after a year of mounting pressure and critical analysis of his management.

Last Thursday, the 25-person board met in closed session to discuss interim chief candidates, with sources saying Bowman emerging as the clear favorite.

This coming Thursday, the executive committee of the Fire Authority’s board is scheduled to meet and will likely discuss the interim fire chief job in closed session. A final decision by the full board is expected when it meets next on Aug. 28, the day before Richter’s last day on the job.

Asked about Bowman’s candidacy, a Fire Authority spokesman said there was no vote at the meeting on hiring an interim chief; nor was any other information available about the closed personnel session.

Bowman — who with his wife, Denise, owns a small vineyard north of Escondido that produces Screaming Chief red wine — couldn’t be reached for comment. He avoided a public tasting session at his winery Sunday afternoon after he learned a reporter would show up.

Bowman began in career as a firefighter in 1973 with the Anaheim Fire Department. He become a paramedic in 1976 and was named chief of that department in 1986.

Bowman served as Anaheim’s fire chief until 2002, when he took over the San Diego Fire Department.

A year later, one of the largest wildfires in California history swept out of the eastern hills into San Diego, destroying 2,200 homes and killing 15 people, including a firefighter.

Known as the Cedar Fire, the conflagration showed the glaring deficiencies in San Diego’s firefighting capabilities, both at the city and county levels. But Bowman earned an award from his peers for his leadership role.

Readiness was so lacking firefighters ran out of batteries to operate radios. Evacuation efforts were chaos at times. Luck prevented more deaths, as cars full of fleeing people were stuck on country roads threatened by fast-moving walls of flames.

Bowman publicly demanded more funding and resources, including a call for 20 new fire stations and equipment in the city.

But after several years in which San Diego officials declined to upgrade services, Bowman, his health affected by the day-to-day pressure, stunned the City Council in 2006 by abruptly resigning.

He did not earn a pension from San Diego because the city, prior to his hiring, had increased the vesting time for fire chief from five to 10 years.

However, Bowman maintained in published accounts that city officials had told him he would be vested at five years. The city’s refusal to grant him the shorter vesting time contributed to his decision to leave.

After 29 years of service in Anaheim, Transparent California lists Bowman’s annual pension at $148,000.

Shortly after leaving San Diego in 2006, Bowman was hired as interim fire chief by the city of Oceanside — where he faced a department plagued by infighting between management and the firefighters union.

In 2007, Bowman left the Oceanside post after being credited in published accounts by both management and labor with reorganizing the department and addressing the contentious issues.

If hired by the Fire Authority as expected, Bowman will be a known commodity among county fire officials as he is a former president of the Orange County Fire Chief’s Association and the California Fire Chief’s Association.

He also has been active in governance of medical facilities — previously serving as chairman of the board of trustees of Anaheim Memorial Medical Center, and is a long-time trustee on the Scripps Health board, which governs a $2.3 billion, non-profit organization with five general hospitals in San Diego.

Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at rexdalton@aol.com.

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