Since 2003, nearly every person who called the Bass Lake Ranger District office in North Fork was greeted by the baritone rumbles of a man defined by versatility, despite his title as an information specialist.
But last month, that distinguished voice was no longer heard, as Philip Messerschmitt, after 46 years with the U.S. Forest Service, decided to hang up his boots.
“I’m going to miss the public,” Messerschmitt said, clad in the garb of a gardener while interviewed outside Ducey’s on the Lake. “I’ve been lucky to make numerous friends during my time here. It’s funny, there’s people who still come up to me and say ‘you’re the wood permit guy.’ Yep, that was me.”
Born in East Los Angeles and raised from 11 years old in Porterville, Messerschmitt, 66, does everything from grow fruit trees and roses at his family’s garden in North Fork to participate in the town’s Squirrel Cage Theatre.
In fact, he said while he answered phones and provided information to the public in person during his 13 years at the district’s front desk, he viewed each call with that theatrical mindset.
“Every day was a performance,” Messerschmitt said. “It was a hell of an experience dealing with the public eight hours a day, but it was something I enjoyed, because with theater and communication experience, I could chew gum and talk to them at the same time.”
Long before his tenure in the district office, Messerschmitt’s career included everything from time as a fire engine captain in North Fork to being called out fighting fires in Minnesota.
He began in 1970 as a “fire guy,” working for an on-call firefighting crew - known as a Blue Card Crew - in Porterville.
Three years later, he joined the Weaverville District in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, as a skilled crewman on a fire engine.
Then, in 1979, Messerschmitt had his first North Fork experience, working as an engine captain with a crew of seven men.
“I was good at what I did,” Messerschmitt said, noting the Mountain Area was one of the nicest places he ever worked. “I made sure that everybody who worked for me was as good as they could be, because the quest is to always be a professional.”
In 1983, his next duty was as a fire prevention technician north of Mammoth Pool, where he also served as coordinator of the area’s Search & Rescue team, with some unfortunate memories.
“I can remember dealing with 11 fatalities,” Messerschmitt said. “Mostly, it was accidental. Everything from logging truck accidents to body recovery from rivers.”
One death caused Messerschmitt to, in a way, break character during the interview.
“There was one (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) at the campgrounds we oversaw,” Messerschmitt said, his voice slightly shaking. “That’s probably the hardest one. There’s not a lot you can do. There’s really nothing you can do.”
A knee injury in 2001 forced Messerschmitt to give up his position on fire prevention, and he worked light duty until taking the information specialist job.
In his free time, Messerschmitt said he enjoys gardening with his wife Cathy, growing crops like 80 pounds of green chiles a year, and cooking up delicious recipes of southwestern influence.
“I’m a professional gardener now,” Messerschmitt laughed.
Messerschmitt has three sons and five grandchildren.
As he looked out over Bass Lake, surveying all the dead trees, Messerschmitt, with humor bright in his eyes, had one last piece of advice.
“People keep saying we’ve had a lot of rain, so we’re going to have a bad fire season,” Messerschmitt said. “Not necessarily. It depends on how stupid and careless some people can be. If they decide we’re not going to be stupid and careless this year, then I think we’ll be okay.”
To celebrate Messerschmitt’s service, a potluck dinner will be held at 4 p.m. with a social hour beginning at 3 p.m., June 25 at the North Fork Town Hall. Guests are encouraged to bring their favorite side dish. Tickets are $10 per person, which includes barbecue dinner, appetizers, and dessert.
Details: (559) 877-2218.