Wash. Man Cuts Mustard as Active Firefighter at 70

July 21--KENNEWICK -- When a wildfire raged near the Washington State Patrol offices south of Kennewick in 1975, it inspired one man, then 30, to become a firefighter.

"I came and volunteered that night," said Bill Morrison. "I signed my name on the dotted line and was on a fire the next day."

Now almost 71, twice retired from other jobs and away from firefighting for nearly 20 years, Morrison is back at his old post, Station 130 near the intersection of Canal Drive and Grant Street in Kennewick.

He's the oldest active firefighter for Benton Fire District 1 and one of the oldest in the region, but fire officials said it's Morrison's dedication to the task that makes him such a valuable volunteer.

"I take my hat off to him for being retired and still wanting to help his community," said Capt. Devin Helland, the district's spokesman.

Adrenaline rush

Station 130 handled about 350 calls a year for fires and medical emergencies when Morrison first volunteered.

The Kennewick Fire Department was smaller then, leaving large swaths of eastern Kennewick under the station's watch. Training was all done on the job, from learning how to attack a structure fire to helping people with traumatic injuries.

Firefighting was taxing work, but Morrison said his maintenance job at the Boise Cascade plant south of the Tri-Cities in Walla Walla County prepared him.

Morrison recalled working a fire for 12 hours, then coming back to clean up before heading to his job followed by another shift on the fire line -- a schedule he could manage then for three days straight.

"Your adrenaline gets to flowing and you're amazed at how much strength and endurance you have," he said.

Over the mountains and back again

Morrison and his wife, Geri, moved to the San Juan Islands in 1994 after he retired. But he kept working, this time as a heavy equipment mechanic.

The long hours discouraged him from continuing as a firefighter on the westside, though.

The couple kept their home in the Tri-Cities and returned to town two years ago after Morrison retired a second time.

He didn't immediately return to firefighting, but a blaze that threatened homes in south Kennewick near Clodfelter Road in June 2013 convinced him he wanted to come back.

"I tried retirement for six months," he said.

But unlike when Morrison first became a firefighter, it was months before he was allowed out on an active fire or emergency.

He had to go through training on everything from how to tackle wildland and structure fires to qualifying as a driver. He also had to meet physical and agility standards.

"We didn't do any favors for him or anything," Helland said. "One of the tests is dragging a 180-pound dummy out of a fire."

While still in good shape, Morrison said he realized early on he wasn't as fit as he was 40 years ago.

The air tanks carried by firefighters are meant to last 30 minutes, but he would go through a tank in 10 minutes during exercises. He now works out four times a week and his air tanks can last about 25 minutes.

Morrison said there's a bigger emphasis now on safety.

Air tanks were seldom used in the 1970s and '80s, and there are tighter protocols on making sure you have a backup when you enter a building.

Getting back into firefighting wasn't always easy for him, his wife said. He sometimes became discouraged during training and was briefly hospitalized in January for an injury.

But she encouraged him to continue, and he got motivated to get in better shape.

"It's in his heart," she said.

Community role model

Morrison has been back on full duty since March and most recently worked on the fire that scorched about 1,000 acres near Prosser.

He still recognizes his limits, though.

Some of the district's firefighters were sent to help on fires near Leavenworth and Pateros. Such mobilizations require a firefighter to handle five days on duty.

"I'm not going to jeopardize their stay on the fire because I can't do it," he said.

Firefighters at Morrison's station and throughout the district admire him for his commitment, Helland said, noting his age and stamina are remarkable.

Helland said Morrison is likely the oldest active firefighter of the 75 to 85 firefighters in the district, but it's his dedication to the job that draws the most praise.

"I don't think there is someone who doesn't trust him," Helland said. "He's a quiet guy who won't turn down an assignment."

Morrison also is a role model for the community. While many young men and women sign up as volunteers, most are looking for experience before leaving for paid firefighting jobs elsewhere, Helland said. Older volunteers, who have set careers and lives, are more likely to stay on longer term.

"That continuity is really critical," Helland said.

Morrison said he has another five years left before he thinks he would have to dial it back.

Even then, he doesn't plan to step completely aside -- he could serve a support role in providing food and water to crews on wildland blazes. Until then, he's trying to make it easier for his wife to keep track of his exploits.

"I've got to get her a scanner so she can listen when we're out," he said.

Copyright 2014 - Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

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