Firefighting tradition binds three generations
INTERMOUNTAIN FEATURE EXCHANGE
By NATE JOHNSON
BURLEY, Idaho (AP) - On a spring day in 1961, a den mother drove
a carload of Cub Scouts to the gate of Hill Air Force Base in
Ogden, Utah. A guard stepped to the window.
The den mother told the guard they were there to see Eldon
The guard saluted smartly and waved them through. Jim Chard was
8 years old, and the guard's salute in response to his father's
name made him sit up a little straighter in the back seat.
On that day, Chard decided he wanted to follow his father in
fighting fires. The seeds of interest planted then grew into a
three-generation legacy carried on today by Jim Chard's daughter,
The den mother drove past the first vast hangar to Fire Station
1. Inside, drying hoses hung from the high, vaulted ceilings. Men's
voices echoed off the walls. It smelled of sour fire retardant,
rubber tires and wet canvas.
The boys watched the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels from the
station tower. Eldon Chard walked them through the station. He
lifted his son into the seat of a fire engine. Jim Chard guessed
the steering wheel was 4 feet in diameter.
As Jim Chard's feet touched the ground, the alarm bell rang. He
flattened himself against the wall. The firefighters moved past
with practiced speed. They stepped into their boots, pulled up
their suits and shrugged into the suspenders. They put on coats and
helmets and screamed out of the building in the engines.
"That is my dad," Chard marveled.
Forty years later, the Burley resident clearly remembers the
details of the scene. He would soon learn the alarm was calling the
firefighters to a mock emergency, but he was no less impressed.
"I was in awe," he said.
While Eldon Chard inspired awe in his son, he gained less
reverent respect from his fellow firefighters.
"Eldon Chard was one hell of a nice guy - you know what I
mean?" said Don Gibbs, who worked with Chard at Hill Air Force
Chard was personable, capable and had a mischievous streak
running from head to heel, Gibbs said. In the name of fire safety,
the two men would drive from town to town delivering brief episodes
of panic to the residents, free of charge.
On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Gibbs walked into a grocery store
and pulled the fire alarm. He walked back outside, struck a match
and dropped it into a pan of gasoline. It was fire prevention week
in the '50s.
At the fire station, Eldon Chard checked the alarm code to see
which building Gibbs had chosen, then stepped into the Model T Ford
he had borrowed from a car dealer. It was one of the few Model Ts
still running, and the dealer had agreed to let Chard borrow it on
the condition that no one drove it but him, Gibbs said.
"It wasn't really a fire engine, but we put a bunch of signs on
it and dolled it up," Gibbs said.
At the grocery store, the wail of the fire alarm and the high
flames dancing in front of the building drew a crowd. Gibbs sprayed
the extinguisher and ran frantically back and forth, but the fire
seemed to overwhelm him.
Then, the crowd heard the "BaOOOga! BaOOOga!" of a strange
two-toned horn. It was Chard putting down the road in the Model T.
Chard leaped out of the car, and he and Gibbs put out the flames.
The performance finished, the two men gave their audience the
obligatory fire prevention speech, Gibbs said.
The times were not always so good. On the Air Force base, the
runway fires were often too hot to extinguish before the pilots
died, Jim Chard said. The firefighters sometimes worked only to
save the bodies so the families would have something to bury.
Eldon Chard had become a firefighter at the base in 1941. For
the duration of World War II, he watched injured planes crash down
on the runway. He could tell, by the approach of an airplane, when
there would be an emergency. Sometimes the crew would be out the
door before the bell rang.
Jim Chard leaned the grim facts of his father's job when he grew
older. Those realities, along with the humdrum details of growing
up gradually, piled up and obscured the feeling he had taken home
from Hill Air Force Base in 1961.
He started working for the Forest Service and took up summer
firefighting as a matter of course. When he joined the volunteer
fire department in Duchesne, Utah, he was thinking of his
community, not his father. But in January 1984, he received an
unusual call to a fire, and all that changed.
His radio beeped out a notice: A house was on fire. He told his
boss where he was going and started for the station. As he jogged
across the street, his radio squawked again.
"Fire at 240 Main Street. Jim Chard's house is on fire."
Chard sprinted the rest of the way to the station. One
firefighter had already started pushing up the door. Chard didn't
break his stride. He ducked under the door and ran to his boots.
In that moment of action, as he grasped his boots, he was
filled, in a flash, with the memory of his father's movements on
the spring day in 1961. Chard had no time to ponder the revelation.
He stepped into the shoes.
His wife, Diana Chard, reached the house before the fire
engines. Two of the children were inside, and two stood anxiously
in the street. Diana ran inside, found her daughter, Rahndi, and
carried her out. She put Rahndi down and turned around.
A man on the street saw her, jumped the fence and reached out to
stop Diana Chard.
"Don't go back in there!" he shouted.
She slipped by him and slammed the door in his face. She
couldn't see through the smoke, but felt her way along the walls to
the room of her daughter, Jaime. Inside, choking gray smoke
obscured objects less than a foot away. The carpet was burning
under her feet.
Diana Chard picked up Jaime from her crib and ran outside. They
were both coughing, but unhurt.
When Jim Chard showed the pictures of the partially burned house
to his father, tears came to Eldon Chard's eyes.
"He wasn't an emotional man, but he could see how close we had
come to losing the entire house," Jim Chard said.
The father and son found they could talk together about fighting
fires. Though they had always been close, this common ground
brought them closer. Eldon Chard died in 1993.
As Rahndi Chard grew older, she became the one most interested
in her father's fire stories. Her mother worried over this
interest. Her father encouraged it.
When Rahndi said she wanted to try skydiving, her father brought
her a Forest Service pamphlet on smoke jumping. As he passed it to
her, Diana Chard saw the title on the pamphlet and dove to
Her husband's love of firefighting was bad enough. She didn't
want her daughter jumping out of airplanes into burning forests.
Jim Chard moved to Burley in 1989 to take a job in the Sawtooth
National Forest. He had given up firefighting after he came back
from a two-week assignment and hardly recognized his daughter.
"She looked like she'd grown years," he said.
But he didn't stop telling Rahndi about the close calls and
friendships he had experienced on the fire line. As a fire safety
officer, Jim Chard repeated the cardinal rule of firefighting to
his daughter over and over. Always know your escape route, he said.
In the summer of 2001, Rahndi Chard drove to the U.S. Bureau of
Land Management fire operations warehouse south of Burley and
signed up to fight fires with Crew 409.
"Heck, if Dad thinks it's fun, I'll try it," she said. "I'm
That summer Rahndi's crew was fighting a fire near Jackson,
Wyo., when the fire boss called in and told them to drop back. The
fire had swept over a ridge and into the crew's safety zone. As
Rahndi fought the encroaching blaze, her father's words echoed in
her head: Know your escape route.
The crew fought back the fire and retreated to camp.
A month later, Rahndi heard her father's voice again. Her crew
was behind the main fire line, stirring ashes and dousing embers.
She was digging when the supervisor called across the radio.
"Safety officer on the line," he said. "Look sharp."
Rahndi kept digging until she heard the voice behind her.
"Everyone using correct safety procedure around here?"
She turned around and pushed the hard hat back on her head.
"Dad? Is that you?"
With his children grown, Jim Chard had decided to go back to
firefighting that summer. He was in training, driving along the
dirt road when he saw the heavy BLM fire truck with a piece of
metal shaped like the state of Idaho on the front grill and below
that, the number 409.
Rahndi scrambled up to the path and hugged her dad. That night
he stayed at her camp.
They ate together, talked, laughed and went to sleep happy.
"Not very many people get to experience that," she said. "I
loved every minute of it."
Jim Chard is still working toward his recertification as a
safety officer. Rahndi Chard, now Rahndi Cheney, is married,
working and going to school. She no longer has time to fight fires,
but every time she sees the trucks go by she feels a pang. She
hopes, like her father, to someday go back into firefighting.
They both remember Eldon Chard with affection. Jim Chard was
recently going through his father's equipment. He put on his dad's
firefighter cap, white with a black brim. He turned to face his
wife, who put a hand over her mouth.
"You look just like your father," she said.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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11-27-2002, 07:30 AM #1
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