In October 1983, then firefighter Michael Apalategui met another newcomer at the El Centro Fire Department called Tim Reel.
By then Reel had been working in El Centro for a few weeks said Apalategui, now a captain, and noted Reel “was already a book of knowledge.”
Imperial County Fire Chief Tony Rouhotas, Calexico Fire Captain Diego Favila and Naval Air Facility El Centro Assistant Fire Chief Gilbert Flores were just some of the officers that went through a course Reel and Apalategui taught through the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program.
“I can name you guys forever,” said Apalategui, who listed several other names before adding “and personally, he (Reel) taught me everything I know, to tell you the truth … a heck of a guy.”
Former interim El Centro Fire Chief Tim Reel, who Apalategui agreed was a teacher to many, retired in December after 39 years. Reel, 64 today, said with a laugh “I’m glad I’m retired … it’s time for somebody else to take it over. Changing the old guard is necessary.”
When asked about why he became a firefighter Reel said that “emergency work is vital, not only to the individuals who serve but to the community as a whole.”
However, he noted that firefighting wasn’t necessarily his first career option.
“I was going to go to graduate school, but I needed a job to provide for my family,” said Reel, who studied fine arts in college and even worked as a set designer in Los Angeles.
Through a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program he got into firefighting training and within a week he knew that firefighting was what he wanted to do.
“This (was) a totally unrelated field I got into, but it was exciting,” said Reel.
And yet firefighting is also a dangerous career. And although in his career there were numerous but brief dangerous situations, San Diego’s Witch fire in the 2007 was for Reel the most sustained dangerous situation he experienced.
That year Reel and other local firefighters spent nine days assisting the effort to put out one of the largest wildfires in Southern California.
“(We) got into hairy situations,” he said and “had a heck of a time getting there.” At one point a fire truck caught fire, which is unusual, said Reel, “but we were able to put it out.”
In the end, everybody got back in one piece, he said.
Now in retirement Reel has no immediate plans and said he’ll stay in the Valley though he’ll travel some.
Reel added he’ll always miss the work — “That will never go away.”
However he was quick to say that he won’t miss the administrative duties. He also said he was “grateful to the citizens of El Centro for providing me and my family a career (and a) home and I’ll always be grateful to them.”
“He’ll be missed here in the department,” said El Centro Fire Captain Danny Moss, “his experience will be missed, his dedication in the department will be missed, I’ll personally miss him, I considered him a friend as well as a supervisor and a boss.”
Staff Writer Alejandro Dávila can be reached at 760-337-3445 or firstname.lastname@example.org