Fair winds and following seas, Chief:

Chief retires after 26 years of helping Sahtlam come of age

Text By Mike Damour - Cowichan News Leader Pictorial

Published: January 25, 2010 3:00 PM

In late November 1980, Mike Lees’ Sahtlam home caught fire.

Firefighters rushed to the scene, but the flames had already taken hold.

“They didn’t save a damned thing — the house burnt down,” said Lees, who’s leaving his job at the Sahtlam hall after 26 years, the last 18 as chief.

“The fire guys came back to me and said they didn’t have a lot of chances to practice and wanted to burn the rest of it down,” Lees recalled, now able to laugh at the situation.

“Well that was just the most traumatic experience of my life.”

No matter how much that disturbed Lees; he quickly got over it when he saw how the firefighters and the rest of the community rallied round him, his wife Lynn, and the couple’s children.

“They all pulled together for us, and that’s one of the reasons we decided to stay there,” said Lees, a 65-year-old retired millwright.

He joined the hall Aug. 20, 1983 and said he was pleased to join a department that had started only 13 years before.

“In 1970 a bunch of guys got together and formed the Sahtlam Fire Protection Society and in 1972, the community built the fire hall,” he said.

In fact, Lees’ father-in-law, Tom Cumpstone, was the first fire chief in Sahtlam in 1972.

“Since I started, I’ve seen the fire department go from being kind of a social club to a professional organization and that comes with the responsibility we have for the job we do.”

Calls that stand out for Lees include the Paldi School blaze many years ago.

“It was vacant at the time, but some homeless people set it on fire and it was a big fire, but what stands out for me was how other halls came and helped out.”

Allan Reid was named the new chief Wednesday night, but Lees said he’s staying on as an associate member and hopes to pass down some of what he’s learned to newer firefighters.

“I consider myself lucky to have been in an era where the Dave Fergusons and Bob Klaus and Andy Hutchins and Glen Sanders were also working,” he said, speaking of former chiefs from different Cowichan Valley halls.

“Being able to rub shoulders with those guys and to draw on them has been an asset.”

As Lees recently looked back on his career, he said the only piece of instruction he could give to the incoming chief is simple and that’s to treat his crews with respect.

“Sometimes it’s easy to get a puffed shirt when you get the authority,” he said.