In the early 1980s, Bill Sharp wasnt sure what he wanted to do with his life. The young father was struggling to make ends meet working in various odd jobs for the city; mowing lawns and handyman work.
Now, Sharp has just completed 21 years with the Brookings Fire Department, where he has served as fire chief since 1992.
I never had a dream that I would be the fire chief of the fire department, he said.
Sharp began working as a volunteer firefighter in 1981. The city gave him the opportunity to attend schools and respond to fires. The training he received would eventually become the stepping stones to a lifelong career.
Not many positions will give you that kind of on-the-job training. Even though I wasnt being paid, I at least got the opportunity.
In 1992, Sharp became volunteer fire chief, which he describes as being the chief cook and bottle washer.
The fire chief manages, trains and is responsible for purchasing fire equipment. He also must make sure the equipment is maintained and ready for service, Sharp said.
The chief is also responsible for overseeing department volunteers.
There are about 40 volunteers at any one time, but they have work and families and there is no guarantee of their training and experience level, he said.
When I respond to a fire, I have to step in and be an engineer, firefighter, or traffic director. The motto of a city employee is that you do anything youre asked to do to make it work.
As a fire chief, Im asked to do things that aren't necessarily my job, but you have to provide a service.
In 1995, Sharp was rewarded for his years of hard work by being given the permanent, paid position of fire chief.
Originally they were going to advertise for the position, then the city council voted to give it to me. It totally floored me. I thought Id have an opportunity, but no more than anyone else. I was ecstatic, but I wasnt fully prepared for the responsibility I was being faced with. The city was a big help. They were very supportive.
Sharp says there are advantages to working as a firefighter in his home town.
You see kids grow up and graduate. That was a real plus when I became chief. You have a real sense of family and community. My friends and family are here. My dad was a logger; my roots are here.
Sharp also laments that there are two sides of the coin.
You know people who are getting up in age. Its difficult to perform CPR on people youve known for years yet you have a job to do.
Sharp reminisces on some of the memorable moments of his career. The 1999 Mount Emily fire in the Chetco Ranger District is the biggest fire he can remember. It lasted a week and a half and burned more than 2,000 acres.
I was very much involved in the daily operations and planning. Three times a day I was in press conferences with the overhead team, discussing homes and other (structures) that were threatened. Ive never been involved that heavily in the administrative side (of firefighting).
A particularly painful memory for Sharp is when the Assembly of God Church on Pacific and Oak streets burned.
There were a lot of emotions there, Sharp recalls. My dad helped build that church. We received the call early in the morning, and by the time we arrived, the building was already fully involved. It was difficult dealing with the emotional side, seeing my family history go up in flames.
Aside from the emotional demands of the job, Sharp has encountered physical challenges as well. In the late 1990s the department responded to a call from Pacific Wood Laminates. The mill had a fire in one of the dryers used to dry plywood. Sharp said these fires are so common, the mill has its own fire brigade.
So we know when we get a call from them, its pretty bad. We were there, along with the Harbor, Gold Beach, Winchuck and Crescent City fire crews. The fire was between the roof and ceiling and it got to a point where it was so bad, we had to abandon the roof. We got everyone off the building, because we were losing it.
There was a crew inside and their radios had quit. I went inside to see if they were OK, and suffered smoke inhalation. When I came back out, I was disoriented from the smoke. A paramedic saw me and came over and put me in the ambulance. I was in the ambulance talking on the radio to see if everyone was alright. I knew we were losing the building; I wanted to get out of the ambulance and they wouldnt let me.
Sharp explains that oxygen deficiency causes the body to shut down to protect the brain and heart, and a person becomes disoriented. He was still in the ambulance when he learned that the fire had been knocked down.
The Crescent City Fire Department brought in a 100-foot ladder. They were able to get above the fire and spray water down on it.
A home fire on Beach Avenue landed Sharp in the hospital.
It was a garage fire. When I got there, the owner met me out front and said his dogs were in there, and he wanted me to get them out. I said I wouldnt go in until the fire department got there. When I cut through the fiberglass door with a saw, the smoke just boiled out right in my face. Later that day, I started getting really nauseated. When I got back to the station, I was really sick.
I waited at the ambulance barn for 20 minutes, feeling like I was going to pass out. I remember thinking, Im going to sit here and die.
Sharp ended up spending the night in the hospital on a ventilator. I was OK the next day, he said. I just woke up with a really sore throat. The lungs are pretty forgiving with short-term exposure.
Later, Sharp learned the owner of the burning house had bags of garbage burning, causing the smoke to be particularly deadly.
Nowadays, theres so much toxic stuff in a normal house, Sharp explained. The smoke can even burn your skin pretty badly. We do everything we can to purchase the right protective gear.
Despite the dangers, Sharp said firefighters wouldnt do the work if they didnt love the job.
Firefighting is fun, exciting and scary a pure adrenalin rush. And after all these years, I still enjoy it.