For Keldy Matthews, the decision to become a firefighter may have been made for him when he stepped off the school bus one day as a seven-year-old.
“I came home from school to a burned down house,” he recalled. “I don’t know if I chose the fire service or it chose me.”
For more than 30 years, Matthews has served as a volunteer firefighter with the Wishkah Fire District, and since 2006, he’s led the district as its second-ever chief.
“He’s dedicated to the community, cares about it on a personal level,” Assistant Chief Mike Pauley said. “He went to Wishkah, graduated from Wishkah, so he’s a longtime community member out here.”
“He doesn’t really have a whole lot of spare time for much else. I think the fire department is what he enjoys,” said Matthews’ wife, Cindy.
For his distinguished service as a volunteer firefighter and fire chief, Matthews has earned The Daily World’s 2013 Firefighter of the Year award. The award is given each year in honor of Cosmopolis volunteer firefighter Denny York, who died after an industrial accident at the Weyerhaeuser pulp mill in 1986.
The award, typically issued in the spring to reflect accomplishments from the previous year, is given this year as we look toward another year on the Harbor.
A new role
A Wishkah Valley native, Matthews has been connected to the fire district all his life. The district’s founding chief, Bill Knannlein, was a mentor to him since he was about eight years old.
When Knannlein was ready to retire after 42 years leading the district, there was only one person he trusted with his life’s work.
“He kind of threw me the keys and said, ‘Here you go.’ But he was there to help me and support me doing everything. But it’s been a challenge,” Matthews said. “It’s a commitment. There’s always something going on. Just being a volunteer, the weight’s not on your shoulders, but as a chief, it’s a little different.”
“I think right at first, he was a bit overwhelmed,” Cindy Matthews said. “But he’s gotten a lot of support from the members. The guy has a lot of knowledge, he’s just over the years been able to soak up that kind of stuff and he just knows.”
“Everybody has a really strong rapport and confidence in Keldy as our chief and our leader,” Wishkah Fire Capt. Bob Anderson said. “If you need something, the guys come up and say they need this to help us be better, he’s going to find a way to help us get what we need. A lot of the guys respect that and respect him for the work he puts in.”
Anderson volunteered a few years under Knannlein and returned when volunteer numbers were down about four years ago.
“He has continued on with what Bill had started. He puts in countless hours being the chief, trying to figure out what equipment we need, what training,” he said. “Our training is a lot better now, our equipment is a lot better now. … Everything’s gotten better.”
Since Matthews has taken over, the district has purchased a new fire engine, new chassis for the other apparatus and installed several new hydrants near the school.
He’s proud of what the district has achieved, but he’s quick to point out the root of its success.
“Thank you Mr. Knannlein. He was very good at the budget and taking care of money. There’s a lot to be said for that.”
Sense of community
Matthews is driven by the same thing as most volunteer firefighters: The ability to protect his neighbors.
“It’s the community,” Anderson said. “The whole community is close-knit. We want to protect our community. A lot of the time you tell him, ‘You don’t have to put in all these hours, you can call us.’ But he doesn’t call us, he just wants to do it himself. He just has this love for the valley.”
It never really stops for Matthews. When he gets home from his job as night shop foreman for Quigg Brothers Inc., he goes through his emails and works on fire district issues.
If he’s not at home or at work, odds are he’s at the station, Cindy Matthews said. He often puts his skills as a mechanic to use with the district, maintaining and upgrading the vehicles himself much as Knannlein did before him.
Even when he is enjoying some down time, “if there’s a call, he’s out the door,” she said.
She understood when they married in 1975 how the fire service calls on the whole family — her father had been a firefighter with the Hoquiam Fire Department.
Their grandchildren particularly enjoy Matthews’ work.
“They think that’s pretty cool. Especially the little boys, when Papa leaves he’ll turn on the lights for them and that’s pretty cool,” she said.
Matthews will even leave work when he needs to be with his firefighters on a call. “My bosses are excellent on letting me do that,” he said.
His supervisor understands his responsibility better than most. Frank Scherer is also a volunteer firefighter, the deputy chief for Grays Harbor Fire District 2 in Central Park and the 2012 Firefighter of the Year.
“We allow him to go on major calls, he leaves and does his volunteer work up there and comes back to work,” Scherer said. “He’s very dedicated to the fire service up there, he’s a great individual to have on our work team here. I can’t say enough about him, he’s a stand-up type guy.”
Anderson said Matthews has helped increase the confidence and success of the firefighters out the Wishkah.
“I’ve been to fires with other fire departments and some of those guys are still, ‘OK, we’re going to protect other houses and protect the foundation and keep it from spreading,’ ” he said. “We think, ‘We’re going to go to this house and keep it from burning down.’ ”
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.