Former Grays Harbor Fire District 10 Chief Bill Knannlein died Monday at his Wishkah Valley home. He was 97.
Knannlein retired in 2006 just shy of his 90th birthday, after 55 years in firefighting and 42 years as the district’s founding chief.
“It’s a commitment. It isn’t a club,” Knannlein told The Daily World at that time. “It’s not a social club like some fire departments are. I like to think we’re a mid-sized fire district. … We’re one of the oldest, too.”
Fire District 10, which covers East Hoquiam to the Hoquiam city limits, Wishkah to the Aberdeen city limits, Bear Gulch, and Junction City, began in 1964 as the Greenwood Fire Department. After an annexation a couple years later, it became known as the Wishkah Fire Department.
Knannlein served on the first operating board for E-911, the Grays Harbor Emergency Medical Services and Trauma Care Council and as chairman of the Grays Harbor Fire Commissioners Association, former District 10 EMT Lisa Donohoe recalled. She helped Knannlein write a history of the district, completed in 2002.
“It was his idea, because he was invested so many years, from the very beginning. He wanted the history to be put in writing before he passed away,” she said.
The district’s second-ever chief, Keldy Matthews, said Knannlein was a role model for him as a firefighter since he was about 8 years old. He remembered Knannlein as a “great man. He did everything he could for that fire district, he’s the reason it’s there. … It’s some big shoes to fill.”
A 1935 graduate of Aberdeen High School, Knannlein spent 13 years as a volunteer with the Cosmopolis Fire Department before moving to the Wishkah Valley.
At his retirement, he was the longest serving volunteer firefighter in the state, according to the Board for Volunteer Firefighters and Reserve Officers in Olympia.
After his retirement, Knannlein remained active in the district as a commissioner and a resource and mentor for the firefighting community throughout Grays Harbor.
“His life was the fire department,” Matthews said. “He was constantly trying to improve the district, equipment, buildings. It started out as one truck, one little fire station, and we now have three stations. It grew from him and his insight.”
Longtime friend, fellow firefighter and former District 10 commissioner Bob Richardson said Knannlein built the district — both figuratively and literally.
“He cut the lumber (for the stations), he kept them all up, and he was right there for the firemen all the time,” he recalled.
At the start, there were 18 firefighters, including Richardson.
“It was exciting, we started building that fire department together,” he said. “It was a long distance for the Aberdeen Fire Department to come clear out there. A few houses had burned down out here, that’s why they decided to go out and build their own fire department.”
Richardson said being a part of stopping that from happening meant a lot to both him and Knannlein. The chief was part of the first emergency medical technician class in 1972, and remained a certified EMT through his retirement. He led the district’s expansion to offering emergency medical service as well as firefighting.
“He was a very great man. I don’t think you can find a better one than him. He devoted his life to the fire department,” Richardson said.
Donohoe said more than anything, she would remember “just the way that he took care of people. He would do anything for anybody. … He just took me under his wing and he was going to teach me everything he knew, and that was a lot.”
Former Aberdeen Fire Department Chief Dave Carlberg knew Knannlein throughout his career on the Harbor, and remembered Knannlein’s hands-on devotion to his district.
“That guy was incredible in the fact that he essentially not only built the buildings, but all the apparatus that they have acquired and the stuff that needed to be rebuilt, he took that on himself,” Carlberg said.
Even later in Knannlein’s career, he undertook ambitious mechanical feats to keep his department’s trucks up and running.
Carlberg remembered one 1951 Kenworth pumper truck in particular.
It was already 30 years old when District 10 bought it from the Burien Fire Department.
“He was very proud of it because he converted it over to an actual modern diesel apparatus, and he did all that work himself in the shop, right there at the fire department,” he said.
Knannlein eventually relented to a museum’s request to buy it, and it’s still on display with the Last Resort Fire Department in Seattle.
“They just couldn’t believe that an 80-year-old guy was doing all this stuff,” Carlberg remembered with a laugh.
Knannlein was connected to the community through the fire department and to the land itself.
“He was the chief of that fire department but he was also a farmer, he had a lot of land out there,” Carlberg said. “I remember he’d come into the office and after he’d leave I’d have to sweep up all the hay and things as he went out the door.”
“I have so many fond memories. I used to go out and see him. One day … he took me up to the Wishkah headworks. Oh my god, what a beautiful setting,” Carlberg added. “It was a great day going out there. He truly treasured the Wishkah Valley and all its beauty.”
Current Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard started his career as a volunteer with District 10 under Knannlein’s guidance.
“He’s the one who got me into the business and he’s the one who sponsored me as a paramedic in one of the local classes here,” Hubbard said. “He was definitely a heart of gold and he was the one who said volunteers firefighters do it because it’s neighbors helping neighbors.”
Knannlein was the second Daily World Firefighter of the Year, honored by his peers in 1987.
“He was the one who presented a badge to me,” Hoquiam Fire Department Chief Paul Dean recalled of his own ceremony in 1989. “He was the fire chief of District 10, but he was like a father to everyone out there. He did a lot of great things.”