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Fighting fires is a family affair on South Whidbey
Not all family fights are bad.
Take the fights Chuck and Eldon Baker had together in Island County Fire District 3.
The Baker brothers have been battling fires together for almost a dozen years. Chuck, 33, and Eldon, 36, both live in Freeland but volunteer at different stations.
They are one group of 11 volunteers in Fire District 3 that have some kind of family tie, be it parent-child, siblings or husband-wife.
Fire Commissioner Kenon Simmons, who has a long family history in the South Whidbey department, considers the district fortunate to have generations who follow in their families’ firefighting footsteps.
“I think that bodes well for the district,” Simmons said. “When one family does it, other families want to do it.”
The broader bond — the one with Fire District 3 — is easy to explain.
“It’s a great program and a good opportunity to serve,” Simmons said.
The elder Baker brother works at the Freeland station and the younger works at the station in Langley.
Their enlistment was possibly a case of little brother-trailing-big brother. Eldon had five years of volunteer experience before his younger sibling signed up.
“My brother being in the department already was a big part of it,” Chuck said.
The last time the Bakers worked together, three years ago, they spent more time battling fatigue.
They were on the sleeper program, the fire district’s overnight watch when firefighters would stay in the station. Working those long nights with his brother was ideal for Chuck.
“It’s really nice,” he said. “It’s somebody I’ve known forever and I trust him. We don’t even really need to communicate with words. Whatever needs to be done, we already know how each one would handle it.”
They may have been born into it, though. There were, and are, Bakers battling blazes in Idaho, including the brothers’ father and uncle.
The family bonds of the 11 sets of relatives in the district range from brothers and sisters, to parent and child, and even husband and wife. Sometimes, they have a combination.
Chuck Baker not only worked with his brother, he also worked with his wife, Kelly. When they were both active volunteers, before their children were born, it helped strengthen their relationship.
“It’s kind of a big commitment, as far as time,” Baker said. “We were able to see each other a lot more often. She enjoyed a lot of the same things I did about the department — being out there and helping people.”
Now, Kelly is preparing to return to her post with the next academy enrollment class.
A feeling of fulfillment drew Forrest Hughes’ daughter Leah to the service in high school more than three years ago. Forrest Hughes is a captain with the Bayview station, and has volunteered with the fire district for 22 years.
When his daughter joined at 16 with the high school firefighter volunteer program, things changed.
“Now it’s not just a boys’ night out,” Capt. Hughes said.
Once she turned 18, she went through the academy and found her place and a career.
“I felt that was a calling of what I wanted to do,” she said.
She described herself as not being attached to much in school — not sports, not studies, not music. Firefighting, however, gave her a focus. And it brought her closer to her dad.
“When I joined the fire department, we made a bond that was just different,” she said. “I had so much respect for him. Our relationship completely changed.”
“I felt it was something that was just ours.”
Things changed again for the father and daughter.
Leah, now 20, recently married former Fire District 3 volunteer Justin Parker. The couple moved to Great Falls, Mont., in early August and Leah Parker received her certification as an EMT and plans to transfer the license to Montana so she can apply to work for Great Falls Emergency Services and the fire department there.
“I’m still doing it; I’m just doing it in a different area,” Parker said.
Parker said Aug. 9 was the first time in three-and-a-half years she missed a training session. And it was the first time she missed riding to a training session with her dad.
“I miss it more than anything,” Parker said.
Her dad knows the feeling.
“A relationship on the fireground and fire station with my daughter — that’s what I’m going to miss,” Hughes said.
Parker recalled responding to a rash of blazes with her dad and working the nozzle and hose line with him.
It wasn’t her first call, though. That was a much simpler, low-risk incident. A fire alarm went off in Freeland on the first day she had her pager. Her dad was the first to respond to it.
“What an honor to be able to do this with my dad,” she said.
Simmons knows what it is like to work alongside someone special. His dad, Carl Simmons, who passed away in April, was the first and only District 3 firefighter to serve 50 years.
They served together for more than two decades.
“It was easy for me to have my father there to show me the ropes and teach me,” Kenon Simmons said.
Back in his heyday, Carl’s brother Roy and his cousin Gordon set the standard for having it all in the family. Roy, Gordon and Carl Simmons all volunteered with the fire district.
The experience of watching his dad respond to late-night calls drew him into the service.
“Growing up, my mom would drive us to the fire scene and we would watch,” Simmons said.
“I joined, and I saw the exciting side of it — the lights and sirens, the mangled cars and the houses falling apart.”
What was exciting for some, was a deterrent for others.
Chief Hughes’ wife, Debbie, wanted to keep their daughter from seeing dead bodies. The concern didn’t last, though.
“It didn’t bother her because she knew I was there and knew I’m good at my job,” Hughes said.
Roy Simmons’ children (also Kenon Simmons’ cousins), Kevin, Jeff and Melissa are all volunteers, too. At one point, for about three weeks, there were three generations of the Simmons family volunteering for the fire district after Kenon’s daughter graduated from the academy.
“Serving together really brings people together,” Simmons said. “It’s a great way for fathers and daughters, brothers or whatever it is, to bond.”
“Being in the fire department is really just a big family,” Baker added.