After more than 34 years of fires, wrecks and just plain old helping folks out in need, Columbia Falls Fire Chief Rick Hagen is hanging up his turnout gear.
Hagen has been the chief of the Columbia Falls Fire Department for the past 10 years. He started out as a volunteer when he lived in town back in 1985. He then moved to Bad Rock, where he was a volunteer for 20 years there — 14 as chief of that department.
It’s been a rewarding career.
“It’s the greatest job in the world,” he said during a recent interview. “I still think it’s fun. You get paid to go help somebody. There’s a lot of job satisfaction and that’s my definition of a good job. Especially when you succeed in helping someone.”
Over the years there have been many memorable fires, some of them tragic. The fire at the Barry residence in 2010 up the North Fork was tragic, as three people died from smoke inhalation in the blaze. The home did not have any working smoking detectors.
But some good came from it, Hagen said. Surviving family members gave the department money to give out free smoke detectors to anyone who needed one in their home. The department still offers smoke detectors today, Hagen said.
Smoke detectors have a lifespan of 10 years, Hagen noted. Carbon monoxide detectors even less — just five years.
From a difficulty standpoint, fires at Plum Creek’s MDF plant have proven the most difficult to get out. The fire travels through the ductwork of the plant, making it difficult at times to completely track down. A fire in 2014 was particularly onerous — they didn’t get it completely out until the next day, as embers were found burning in a sawdust storage area.
Saving a house from fire is always rewarding, Hagen noted. He recalled one notable save a few years ago on Grand Fir Lane. A fire had started in a bathroom and burned a hole through the roof of the house, but firefighters were able to save the home from destruction.
Hagen got his start in firefighting after chief Don Barnhart asked him if he’d consider being a volunteer.
Hagen was 30 at the time and joined up.
“He’s the reason I’m here right now,” Hagen said.
Barnhart not only got him interested in firefighting, Don’s wife, Barb, helped Hagen’s wife, Lisa, get a job at a local pharmacy — a career that lasted her more than 20 years.
Hagen grew up here, joined the Navy, did his tour and came back home. He worked for Plum Creek and for the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. in addition to his volunteering as a firefighter. He worked at CFAC until the plant shut down in 2009.
Karl Weeks, a longtime volunteer and captain with the department, has been named Hagen’s successor.
As a paid chief he said it’s important to have good relationships with the volunteers.
“We’re all professional in what we do,” Hagen said.
He said it’s important to keep it interesting for volunteers.
“They have to want to be here,” he said.
But the best advice is simple advice.
“You have to be honest with people,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t want to hear what you tell them.”