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Community Spotlight: Local fire chief answers burning questions

Fire Chief Ken Burdette - Courtesy photo
Fire Chief Ken Burdette
— image credit: Courtesy photo

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

Ken Burdette has been fighting fires in some form for the entirety of his adult life. For the past seven years, he’s served as Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue’s fire chief, but he’s put in plenty of time on the front lines as well.

Burdette’s career kicked off in Monmouth, Ore. in 1969, when he took a job as a volunteer firefighter. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that would turn into a career for Burdette during the next 39 years.

After serving as the deputy fire chief in Portland, Ore. for nearly 28 years, Burdette took over operations at Central Kitsap. He’s been serving the county for almost seven years now. He’s also involved in the community as the president-elect of the Rotary Club of Silverdale.

We sat down with Burdette recently to discover what it was that drew him to Kitsap County and what it’s really like to be a full-time fire chief.

Question: What made you want to become a firefighter?

Answer: The youth leader at my high school was the captain at the time at Portland Fire and he said, “Someday you should think about (becoming a firefighter).” I was down at college — I had gone down a couple weeks early to start a job — and there wasn’t much to do and my roommate was a volunteer firefighter and said, “Why don’t you come and join?” That was a Wednesday night. I went and joined and they showed me what to do when we got to a fire and the next day at 10 o’clock the siren went off and I’m thinking “Wow, that’s me.” I ran down and jumped on the back of the rig and it was a working fire and I have to tell you it was pretty darn exciting. I decided I had never experienced anything like that before and I decided that was going to be something that was part of my life. Right there.

Q: What’s the most dangerous part of firefighting?

A: That’s a tough one. THere are so many tasks that are dangerous. There are a lot of firefighters killed every year in vehicle accidents, at accident scenes. Certainly there are a lot of firefighters injured and killed every year in structure fires. Today the fires burn with the materials inside of buildings so much hotter and faster than they used to. Buildings (also) are constructed with lightweight construction materials. Back when I first started you had some warning sings before a building collapsed. Today you don’t have much warning — they just go.

Q: What made you want to go from being a firefighter to being a fire chief?

A: I don’t know. I never had a job in the fire department that I didn’t love. I always loved where I was at and I always loved the people I worked with. There were times when a test came up, when it was time to take a lieutenant’s test, I thought, “Well, I’ll try that; I think I might be able to do that job.”

Q: What’s one of the more humorous calls you’ve been on?

A: We had a guy one time that was over at his girlfriend’s house and she wouldn’t let him in because he’d been drinking and so he went up and climbed down the chimney. Oh boy, it was a challenge to get him out. We were able to get a rope down (the chimney) and he was fortunate enough to go down with his hands above his head. We were able to have him wiggle that kind of underneath his arms and we kind of slowly pulled him up. It wasn’t quite so funny to him because when we got him down, the police arrested him.

Q: Do you get frustrated with calls like that, where people get themselves into trouble through carelessness? Do you ever feel like there are more important things to do than to bail drunks out of chimneys?

A: I guess from my perspective, it’s not (a waste of time). People call us for whatever reason. Our job is to go out and take care of them. They have an emergency and what’s an emergency to them might not be an emergency to me. But it’s their emergency and you know what? We’re gonna go take care of it.

Q: Which was a better firefighter movie — “Backdraft” or “Ladder 49”?

A: Neither one of them is very accurate. The first thing is, it’s really impossible to film an accurate firefighting movie because when you go inside of a fire you can’t see. So how do you film it? There’s really not a way to show what it’s really like. I’ve never seen one that depicted what it’s really like. It’s one of those things that you kind of have to be there.

Q: When you go into a live, burning building, are you scared, or do you block out the fear?

A: I don’t know that fear is really the right word. There is a healthy respect. The fire is the enemy, so to speak, and you try and predict what it’s gonna do and sometimes it surprises you. You try and have a very healthy respect for the fire and for the structure that it’s in. I guess I can’t think of a word to describe it ... anxiety, I guess.

Q: What’s it like living in a fire house for days on end?

A: It’s a family. I had a family at home and then I had a family at the fire station. It’s a real team effort. You work with people, you rely on them, you never know when the bell’s gonna ring ... and there’s just a real sense of camaraderie. It’s not like most other jobs. Very few jobs do you live 24 hours at a time. You literally are a family for a third of your life.

Q: Did you ever have any special dishes that you were known for when you cooked at a fire house?

A: My family tells me I make a pretty good spaghetti sauce.

Q: Are there any common practical jokes that go on at the fire house?

A: I worked with a guy that was a real jokester. There was a lot of things that he used to do that kept us all on our toes. He used to like to take a coat hanger and hook it onto a belt loop in the back so you’d walk around with this coat hanger. Nobody was exempt. If the fire chief came in, he’d hang one on the back of him; I saw him hang one on the back of a state police (trooper) out on the highway on the scene of an accident.

Q: Do you get a lot of fire-related gifts for birthdays, holidays, etc.?

A: Oh yeah. I have a collection of toy fire engines, so over the years I’ve gotten some toy fire engines. (I have) well over 200.

Q: What are your thoughts on the fire merger?

A: I think it’s a good deal. I think it’s good for citizens. I think it will create efficencies. It’s not something we’re going to say is going to save money right when we start. The long run is, the efficiencies will keep costs from rising in the future. I think it is something that would be very good for this community.

Q: What, besides your job, drew you to Kitsap County?

A: There were fire chiefs jobs that opened up that (I didn’t take). The first thing I wanted to do was to live in a community that I wanted to be a part of. I had a good job, I didn’t need a job (when I found this one). Me and my wife came up here and we thought, “This is a really nice place.” It’s absolutely gorgeous and we thought we liked it. We looked around and we decided that this was a place I’d like to apply.

Q: What’s your favorite part about Kitsap County?

A: That’s a tough one because every morning when I come to work, as I come across Ridgetop, I get to look at the Olympic Mountains and they are absolutely spectacular. I never tire of looking at that. I wish there was a pull-off where you could just pull over and look. Any place that you can see the water is spectacular. And of course there’s always Mount Rainier and the Cascades. You just can’t go very far without finding something pretty to look at.

Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed since moving here?

A: I think the change in downtown Bremerton is probably the most dramatic change that I’ve seen in my time. I haven’t been here for nearly as long as other people have, but just to watch the city change downtown ... I think it’ll have a positive effect on the whole area.

Q: If you could change one thing about the area, what would it be and why?

A: I guess the thing that sometimes I look at is the transportation system. Partly because of where we live and how the land is, it’s very difficult sometimes to get around — not just from a personal standpoint, but I’m looking also from a fire district standpoint. There are really very few ways to get east and west in the county. Part of it’s blocked by bodies of water like Dyes Inlet. Getting around can be challenging, (but) I’m not sure there is a way to change it.

Q: Have the road washouts — the Chico bridge collapse and the washout on Illahee Road — made transportation difficult for your department?

A: Sure. Anytime that we have routes that are blocked, we have to be very, very careful how we get there. You wouldn’t want to respond on Illahee to an address and not know exactly what side of the cut it’s on because it’s a huge difference in travel time. Those are certainly things that we have to be very aware of. Same with the Chico bridge.

Q: What one person made the biggest impression on your life?

A: My parents certainly had an impression on my life, but I think that a person that really sent me in the direction I am today is the first fire chief I ever worked for (Don Milligan, who was Burdette’s chief in Monmouth, Ore.). His work ethic, his ethics ... he was somebody that was a mentor today and to this day he’s somebody that’s still a very, very good friend of mine.

Q: Are you involved with any local organizations?

A: I’m in Silverdale Rotary. I’ve been in Rotary for six years this month. I’m currently the president-elect, so in July, I’ll take over as president of Rotary. It’s just an organization that does a lot for the community and frankly, not just for the local community, but for the world community. I feel that it’s something that just benefits my life and it’s a way that I can give back to others.

Q: What’s your favorite local event?

A: Being in the Silverdale Rotary, it’s has to be the great Silverdale Duck Race. It’s a great fund-raiser — really the big fund-raiser for the Rotary — and really, the whole Whaling Days is, I think, a fun community weekend and I just enjoy it.

Q: What’s one thing you haven’t done in your life that you’d like to try?

A: I love airplanes and I’m a pilot. I’ve been fortunate enough to fly in a number of different airplanes and there are some that I’d just love to go for a ride in.

Q: What kinds of planes have you flown?

A: I learned to fly in a Cessna, so I’ve flown in a Cessna 152, 172, 182. I’ve flown in a Piper Warrior and a Piper Archer. I’ve been able to fly an RV-4, which is an experimental airplane, but I’ve gotten to fly in a number of other airplanes.

Q: What would be your dream aircraft to fly?

A: An F4U Corsair would just be kind of an ultimate dream.

Q: What’s the most exciting one you’ve actually been able to fly in?

A: I got to fly in a Ford Tri-Motor. That’s something that, there aren’t many of those around and it was an awful lot of fun to be able to do that.

Q: If you could have any magical power, what would it be?

A: I’ll give you two answers: one serious and one funny. One would just be to fly. (The other) would be one of those dreams that I don’t know that anybody will ever attain, but I guess to bring the world together. I guess if I had a magic power, that would be one that would be pretty spectacular.

Q: Do you have a favorite meal?

A: Spaghetti’s awfully good.

Q: Do you have a favorite flavor of ice cream?

A: Well, you know, vanilla goes well with apple pie. You can always put chocolate on it.

Q: Do you have a favorite hobby?

A: I would have to say that my hobby is airplanes. I own a part of an airplane, a Cessna 182.

Q: What’s your favorite type of music?

A: It depends on what mood I’m in. I like jazz, there’s time I like to listen to classical, there’s times I like to listen to oldies. I have a variety of CDs and I can plug in anything from Brahms to the Beach Boys.

Q: Do you have a favorite book?

A: There’s so many books I’ve read over the years that are good. I love to read historical novels.

Q: What is the biggest or most devastating fire you’ve ever been a part of?

A: I was on the Pomona Hotel fire (in Portland, Ore. in 1975); we lost 12 people in that fire. There’s been a number of fires I’ve been at with fatalities that stick in my mind. Those are all significant events. One that sticks out from a happier point of view: I was a battalion chief at the time and we had a 17-year-old kid that was stuck in a freight elevator. It was a four-story building and three of them were completely engulfed and he was stuck between the first and second floor. We had a pretty elaborate rescue process to get him out and that was something that I was glad to be a part of. It was pretty exciting. It was a good feeling. It was a pretty risky operation and it came out successfully.

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