Nearly 30 years ago, Leonard Champion was offered a position in the Santa Maria Fire Department as a reserve firefighter, following in the footsteps of father and department veteran Mike Champion. 

He was grateful to be back in his hometown of Santa Maria for the start of his career, completing certification tests all over the state in search of a position after graduating from Cal State Long Beach.

“It was my dream department, but I was willing to go anywhere,” Champion, 51, said. “I was very fortunate not to have to move away from the community I love and grew up in, and to get to deepen those connections to the community.”

That initial step would launch a long career in the department that was full of surprises, including his eventual promotion to fire chief. However, after much thought over the last year, Champion has decided to retire from that role on Dec. 17.

“It’s definitely something that you weigh out as you get closer to that time,” Champion said. “It just makes sense for me and my family, and to do it at this time.”

Earlier in his career, Champion had hoped to become an arson investigator. However, after advancing to a non-reserve firefighter in 1993, he moved on to be a truck engineer, fire captain and battalion chief.

In 2016, Champion was named fire chief by former City Manager Rick Haydon after serving in the position on an interim basis, a role he was proud to hold.