Manuel Estrella III retired June 30 from the West Tisbury Fire Department after 47 years of service, 30 as chief. The Vineyard’s fire, EMS, and law enforcement communities didn’t let Estrella’s last day go without paying tribute.
A little after 10 am Wednesday, a parade of emergency vehicles and fire apparatuses rolled past the Estrella residence on Indian Hill Road, sirens screaming, light flashing, well-wishers waving from rolled-down windows.
West Tisbury select board chair Skipper Manter, who is a police lieutenant too, sprang from his cruiser to shake Estrella’s hand. So too did Dukes County Special Sheriff Jim Neville. Later, West Tisbury Police Chief Matt Mincone, who’d orchestrated the parade, embraced Estrella and his wife Sharon.
“Chief Estrella has always been a collaborative leader and a role model of mine,” Mincone told The Times. “I’ve watched him positively build a volunteer organization where each individual is part of the overall success. His leadership style was always on display in crisis situations, but most importantly, he was always visible and willing to give you his ear — and opinions. I wish him well in his retirement, and welcome the opportunity to work with Chief Pachico keeping West Tisbury safe.”
Chief Greg Pachico, Estrella’s son-in-law, was sworn in Monday as West Tisbury’s next fire chief.
“I have big shoes to fill,” Pachico told The Times. “I learned from him, listen to your firefighters, treat them with respect, and do everything you can to keep them as safe as possible in this line of work.”
Like many of his colleagues pointed out, Estrella is a plainspoken leader who presents a cool head in tumultuous situations. “He made commanding chaotic scenes seem so easy,” Pachico said. “That’s what I will strive to do for our firefighters.”
Estrella, 73, joined the West Tisbury Fire Department in his early 20s, under the leadership of Arnie Fischer, West Tisbury’s first chief. He said he still recalls Fischer rolling into his yard to give him a $50 stipend check for his volunteer work. “Nowadays I think the guys get $1,500, $2,000 — that doesn’t even pay for gas,” he said.
Estrella expressed concern about the burden of training and drilling on an ever busier, ever costlier Vineyard. “They’ve got to come up with some incentive for people to join,” he said. He suggested health insurance, larger stipends, or tax incentives might be strong lures. He expects recruitment will become more and more challenging before solutions are found. “Down the road is going to be hard,” he said.
Nevertheless, he expressed faith in Pachico’s recruitment potential.
Estrella first got a stipend of $5,000, he said. Upon retirement, he was receiving a stipend of $50,000, and also received a command vehicle so he didn’t have to put wear and tear on his personal truck. Having worked as a custodian at the West Tisbury School for years, benefit stipulations prevented him from exceeding $50,000 in compensation. The school isn’t completely in Estrella’s rearview mirror.
“I’ve been out of the school eight years,” he said. “I still get calls once in a while from the school because they don’t know where this is or that is.”
Times are changing in West Tisbury, compensation-wise. Estrella’s son-in-law will become the first truly salaried fire chief in West Tisbury ($120,000).
“The town has been very good with the fire department — they’ve been excellent to me,” Estrella said. “I’ll miss it.”
Estrella has responded to all manner of fires over the years: car fires, chimney fires, structure fires. He recalled a house fire years ago on Lambert’s Cove where a firefighter was almost struck by a toppling chimney, and where stowed ammunition haunted the response. “We had bullets going off while we were fighting that fire,” he said.
Firefighting has changed during his time on the job. “Nowadays, to fight any type of house fire, you’ve got to go inside,” he said. “When I first joined, if you squirted water on a house, they thought you were doing a great job.”
By far his biggest concern firewise has always been the Manuel Correllus State Forest, which he described as a “mess” — thousands of acres where he’s long seen poorly trimmed fire lanes and overly abundant fuel loads. “They’ve got a lot of work there,” he said. “They’ve got years and years of work there.”
He described the forest as a ticking bomb. “We’ve been very lucky,” he said. “Sooner or later something will happen out there.”
Estrella said he would miss the fire department and the folks who work there. “Take Mike Hull, for example,” he said. “I don’t care what time of night or day it is, if it’s an alarm call, he’s there. He’s probably older than I am. But he is always there. I always can count on him … no matter what.”
During an interview with The Times on June 26 in his backyard, Estrella, who was otherwise collected, became noticeably saddened when reflecting on one of his best friends. Though he said he missed John Early, Daniel Prowten was at the forefront of his thoughts. Prowten died in a house fire at his West Tisbury home in 2010.
“The one I really miss a lot is Danny Prowten,” he said. “My wife used to cut his hair. He’d always come here — sit, talk, or I’d go up to his house and talk. And then in the summertime he had raspberries — always come, get a haircut, and bring us raspberries. I miss him. I think we joined about the same time… We had this thing at the Ag Hall, you know, I really broke down. It was hard for me that day. It was hard when we pulled him out of the house. People like that you really miss.”
In addition to the generosity the town and people of West Tisbury have shown the fire department, Estrella made special note of contributions Dirk Ziff and his family have made to the fire department, including funding a tanker. He also thanked Brian Roberts and his family for their contributions to the department.
Estrella said he was pleased with the amount of scholarship funds the department provided this year — $20,750, by his tally. He said he was proud of all the scholarship revenue gleaned from Ag Fair parking the department has garnered over the years.
Not one for fanfare, Estrella said he doesn’t want a big shindig for his retirement. He said he’d rather exit quietly, like he did at the West Tisbury School.
“When it was time,” he said. “I just walked out the door, thanked everybody, and that’s it.”
His department and all the other departments on the Vineyard declined to let him exit quietly on Wednesday. With tips of his hat and thumbs-up to well-wishers, Estrella seemed to not mind he was exiting loudly.
“Chief Estrella, along with Chief Nelson Amaral, inspired me to join the fire department when I was 15 years old, back in 1991,” Oak Bluffs Deputy Fire Chief Manuel Rose wrote. “Chief Estrella has done a tremendous amount for the Island fire service, and certainly for the town of West Tisbury, during my career. He will be greatly missed. I only hope that we can see each other from time to time, as I’ve always enjoyed our conversations. I hope that Chief Estrella truly enjoys his retirement as it is well deserved; he gave many many years to the town of West Tisbury and the Island community.”
“When I was an incoming chief,” Aquinnah Fire Chief Simon Bollin wrote, “Chief Estrella was so encouraging and helpful. I have learned so much from him over the years, and it’s been a pleasure working with him. He has always been such a calming presence at emergency scenes.”
“The relationships and rapport he has with his membership and the community he served always seemed to be genuine and personal,” Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer wrote. “His time serving as chief shows his commitment to the fire service on the Island. It is remarkable to have a chief be able to sustain that role for so long and still be as invested as he has been.”
“Chief Estrella was a member of the West Tisbury Fire Department for 47 years, and has been an integral part of the Dukes County Chiefs Association for the last 30 years,” Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Leland wrote. “On behalf of the Chiefs’ Association, I would like to thank him for his 30 years of service, and congratulate him on a well-deserved retirement. His institutional knowledge will be missed.”
“He will definitely be missed,” Chilmark Fire Chief Jeremy Bradshaw said.
“It was a pleasure to work beside Chief Estrella,” Tri-Town Ambulance Chief Ben Retmier wrote. “I learned a lot about being a chief from him, and always knew on a scene that he had my providers’ safety at the top of his priorities.”
Retired Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton called Chief Estrella “a good friend” who was always there when Chilmark needed mutual aid. “It’s an honor to have worked with Manny over decades of service,” Norton wrote.
“His steadfast commitment to the public safety of West Tisbury and the Island of Martha’s Vineyard will be a benchmark for his successor,” Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden wrote.
“I’ve known the Estrellas since I was in grade school and we were neighbors,” Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake wrote. “As long as I can remember, Manny has been a dedicated public servant with the fire department. He truly is one of those Island people who make West Tisbury and the Vineyard a special place. I wish him the best in a much-deserved retirement.”