Mike Lilienthal knows the exact day he questioned his decision to become a firefighter: Feb. 6, 1997.
Just three months after taking a job with the Stockton Fire Department he and fellow firefighters responded to a residential structure fire with an elderly victim trapped inside. Firefighters rushed in and, Lilienthal recalled, “As I was walking through the door the house collapsed.”
He lost two friends that day and still gets quiet after talking about the incident, explaining, “It was pretty traumatic for me.”
But Lilienthal, now 35, stuck with the job, eventually making it to battalion chief, and now he’s in a new role as the El Dorado Hills Fire Department’s fire marshal. Lilienthal took over for Brad Ballenger, who retired late last year.
The second-generation firefighter began his career young. He remembers riding around with his dad, a now retired Los Angeles fire captain, since age 13. “I’ve always been fascinated with fire engines,” he confessed.
Right out of high school Lilienthal took a job with Ventura County’s helitack crew and in November 1996 he went to Stockton. After working for Stockton Fire Department for 16 years, Lilienthal called the transfer to El Dorado Hills “a good move.” The fire marshal has a young family — wife Kim (married 10 years) and daughters Kyla, 7, and Makenna, 4.
Though he had some good experiences in Stockton — at least six babies delivered — the city’s emergency crews responded to hundreds of shootings during Lilienthal’s last few years there and “just a lot of craziness,” he said. The family moved from Lodi to Rocklin to get farther away from the violence but the commute took its toll.
Then, last April, Lilienthal, a member of Stockton’s water rescue team, came to El Dorado Hills for a joint swift-water rescue training exercise. “I was super impressed by the organization,” he said. When the job opportunity arose, Lilienthal applied even though he thought it was a “long shot” since he didn’t have fire prevention experience. His leadership skills made up for that and he started shadowing Ballenger in September to learn the ropes.
As El Dorado Hills’ fire marshal Lilienthal is responsible for managing the department’s inspection programs, reviewing subdivision plans, investigating suspicious fires and handling calls from the public about illegal burns and fire pits. He’s also a part of the El Dorado County Arson Task Force, was recently named president of the El Dorado County Fire Prevention Officers and pulls double duty with El Dorado Hills Fire as the battalion chief in charge of B shift. Lilienthal and a few firefighter friends also run Box Alarm Consultants, a fire training business. For nine years he has taught command and control classes.
Guiding Lilienthal through all his duties are three simple rules he highlighted in the Marine Corps NCO Handbook: “Know your stuff. Be a man. Look after your men.” He values these skills so much, the fire marshal is currently working on his masters in leadership.
El Dorado Hills Fire Department’s leadership fits well with Lilienthal’s own ideals. “The department’s commitment to do the right thing is amazing to me,” he said, commending Fire Chief Dave Roberts for his forward-thinking approach and the department’s succession plans.
Lilienthal said he also enjoys the camaraderie in the department. He’s already in on the “surprise Barbie head” joke; you never know where she’ll show up. The joke really mirrors the job. Lilienthal noted, “You never know what’s going to happen 10 seconds from now.”