Veteran fire chief steps down after 25 years

The ChronicleJanuary 2, 2014 

After 27 years, being chief is second nature to Buck Graham.

Over the years, he has become as comfortable tweaking a budget as driving a fire engine, and he likes being in charge.

But at the end of 2013, Graham ceded his seat as chief of Grays Harbor Fire District 1, Oakville, to Kevin Witt, a man with more than 25 years of experience.

“I’d be a liar to say it won’t be hard to let go,” Graham said recently. “I’ve done it for so long, so many things have become second nature. You do it, you take care of it, you make it happen, and now when an issue comes up, I’ll be sitting in the background, watching somebody else do it.”

Graham is not quitting.

Rather, he will resume a nonleadership role on the volunteer force. He has 47 years with the department and would like to go to at least 50.

Graham is a firefighter like other people are, say, a Canadian or a brunette.

Born and raised in Oakville, he joined the volunteer department in 1966, when he was 16, and quickly was hooked.

“One thing if you ever talk to firefighters, there’s always an adrenaline rush of being able to participate in a call,” he said. “Myself and two other high school students joined, and I just kind of stuck with it.”

Over the years, he has balanced his firefighting with a career at Weyerhaeuser, working as an investment recovery manager, a job that required frequent travel throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Fighting fires was the sole focus of the department when Buck started at 16. Now, about 85 percent of the department’s responses are to other emergency calls, a national change that started in the 1970s, right when Graham became assistant chief.

As assistant chief, he quickly became familiar with the upsides and downsides of being in charge.

“One of the most stressful things is trying to balance anywhere from 20, 25-35 different personalities together and mix them together with one common goal — you have professional people, farmers, truckers, housewives,” he said. “The best part is seeing people develop. People who start out knowing nothing and then seeing them develop into very qualified people, that’s the most gratifying, that and being able to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Graham became chief in 1986 and would hold that role during one of the most dramatic saves of his career - the 2005 Pellet Mill fire.

On the evening of Sept. 6, 2005, a fiery explosion set ablaze the Oakville-area mill, which was bordered by a church, two homes and a storage facility.

“We were able to contain the fire during a time of the year when it could have burnt the whole town down,” he said. “We had a tremendous response from neighboring agencies, our department was right on the spot, it burnt the building down but it didn’t go anywhere else.”

Graham is one of the longest serving of the 18,000 volunteers in the state of Washington, according to the State Board of Volunteer Firefighters.

A celebration honoring Graham for his service will be held Saturday in the Chehalis Tribal Community Center from 4-6 p.m. The organizers request that you RSVP through or leave a message at 360-273-6645.

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