Assistant Chief Jim Watson looks on while Chief Bill Sharps shows award from Brookings Fire Department. The Pilot/Jef Hatch
Brookings Fire Chief William Sharp joined the fire department because “it seemed like something exciting to do.”
He didn’t know the half of it.
The Brookings native joined the ranks in 1982 – and a week later, the “Friday the 13th” storm struck, with 150 mile per hour winds, torrential rain and the subsequent deluge of calls for help from the community. Then the fire chief was fired and in a roundabout way, the volunteer firefighter landed a job with the city public works crew.
He stayed with that for 10 years, simultaneously volunteering at the fire department. He was hired as the volunteer chief 10 years later.
Citizens packed the Elks Lodge last night to acknowledge the 30-plus years he’s been with the fire department.
Sharp retires Sept. 5, and he and his wife, Dixie, are moving to Alaska, where he will work as an airplane de-icing technician at the Anchorage airport for the winter and take on a job as a security guard in Soldotna, on the Kenai Peninsula next spring.
He leaves behind a legacy, although he said his beginnings were rather humble.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said of his job as leader of the department. “Without the support of all the mentors I had, I couldn’t have done this job. I get the benefit of knowing that (assistant chief) Jim (Watson) and (Tom) Kerr will continue this department on and never miss a beat.”
Sharp grew up in the shadow of his father, an Assembly of God minister.
“When he died, people would bug me, “You’re going to be a minister, just like your dad?’” he said. “I could never be like my dad. He was bigger than life.”
He’s still got a little bit of that minister’s son in him, he said.
“Knowing that the next step I take, God will be there for me, in going to Alaska,” he said. “I trust Him in that.”
But the person his father was, Sharp became, touching peoples’ lives as a mentor, a friend and a counselor, he said.
“I don’t know how that happened,” he said, wiping his eye. “I never set out to do this. I realize the man my father was, I had become. He’d invested in me. It makes me feel pretty small.”
“He’s done a good job for the city and the broader community,” said City Manager Gary Milliman. “He’s really kept the department moving ahead.”
He’s tried to follow what his father taught him – to be responsible, be a good worker and do what’s asked of him – as the scores of volunteers have come and gone through the department in the years that followed.
“I’m aware I work for the people; I represent the interests and concerns of the people, Sharp said. “I provide for the safety and welfare of this community. I’m thankful I’ve gotten this chance. I’m blessed to be able to do this.”
A motorcycle wreck in 2003 – resulting in a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a lost memory and 11 months of physical therapy – also made him realize how fleeting life can be.
“And this department continued on as if it never missed a beat,” he said, referring to the foundation he established that enables the department to work as a team. “It spoke volumes to me. My job’s complete.”
Yet, at 55, he’s having trouble believing where he is at this point in his life.
When he arrived, the department was “merely” a volunteer organization, and his office was little more than a cubbyhole, he said.
“There was no schedule; I would stare at the wall and say, ‘What now?’” he said. “We responded to calls, that was it.”
Now, as the engines in the bays boast, the department is professionally staffed with volunteers. The chief is involved in all aspects of community life, from teaching fire safety at the schools, to representing Curry County at the state level.
Sharp’s particularly proud of having been able to purchase two engines, one a pumper with a 1,000-gallon capacity, the other a pumper/tender that carries 2,600 gallons of water. He was instrumental in obtaining federal and state grants to replace the departments’ air tanks, turnout gear, radios, a quick-attack mini-pumper and wildland firefighting gear. He also initiated the junior firefighter program.
In the late 1990s, the fire chiefs of the 13 departments in Curry County elected Sharp to serve as the volunteer County Fire Chief, representing the interests of the county at the state level.
During the Biscuit Fire in 2002 and the Repeater Fire of 1998, he worked with state and federal agencies to contain what was then the state’s largest fire in 100 years. Sharp also helped coordinate mutual aid agreements with Cal-Ore Life Flight Ambulance to bring about changes in the level of services the departments provide, he said.
One of his goals in the beginning was to increase the ranks of the volunteers. In 1982, the department boasted 60. Five years ago, there were 20. They’re now at 22, but that number will almost double once summer’s over, he said.
When he started, the department received about 300 calls each year; today that has more than doubled.
It’s a bittersweet departure, Sharp said, of the department, his friends, the community and his hometown.
When the economy crashed and the city budget got tight, Sharp was asked by city officials what it would take to get him to retire. It was a slap in the face.
“I like this job; I like the people,” he said. “I grew up in this community; why would I want to leave?”
He understood the dilemma facing the city, and began thinking about departing.
“I had always told myself, when it came to a point where it wasn’t fun, it was time to go,” he said. “The administration and operations, I could do forever. The politics and bureaucracy wasn’t fun.
“But the planets have lined up and I just know it’s time,” he said with a smile. “It’s emotionally hard. It’s the unknown, too. This job is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; I’ve grown comfortable with it. To take my hat off, my badge off, and go be just Bill Sharp moving to Alaska is scary.”
Then again, he’s worked in a field known for its fear factor.
“OK. I’ve always kind of lived on the edge – and like it,” he said. “What a blessing. I started mowing lawns at $6 an hour to wearing a badge and being part of the community. And here I am retiring.”
He attributes his success to the community, his family and his volunteers.
“Of course it isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s entirely about my officers and the volunteer department members. All my successes and achievements are directly related to the support and involvement of our volunteers. The department doesn’t function or exist without their involvement or effort.”
Seeing them grow and join to provide for the welfare and safety of the community in which he was raised is a point of pride, as well.
“To mentor, to invest in a person, to watch them grow, to leave the department better than when they came in, all because I had the opportunity to invest in them. …” he said. “It’s a pretty cool thing.”
It’s mutual, as well, he noted. Sharp posted news of his retirement on Facebook and for four days received comments that made him laugh and cry – and laugh and cry again.
“The lives I’ve touched and vice-versa,” he said. “Without any question, those are my fondest memories. There are a lot of memories in this town.
It’s been a good ride.”