Editorial: Bob Nickelsen is the humble gold standard, and one worth emulating

December 14, 2011

Few will ever enjoy the unique relationship of Bob and Chris Nickelsen, father and son fire chiefs, but their example is one that able-bodied men and women can still follow.

Chris grew up watching his father's hands at the wheel of the fire truck, and on Saturday he shook his father's hand in an unusual situation - honoring Bob for sixty years (that's 60) of fire department service. (See page A1 for an article on Bob, an orchardist whose record of service also includes time as port commissioner.)

Sixty years is a remarkable record, and Bob Nickelsen deserves the thanks of the community. There's no way to improve on Chris' own statement: "It's a unique position to be in; you don't see people who volunteer their time that long."

Chris, a 35-year fire veteran, said, "It's pretty special; I started riding with him to fires when I was 8-10 years old."

Fire volunteer service is an example of the underappreciated level of volunteerism in the valley, according to Chris. He is not the only young person Bob helped inspire to join the force. The student firefighter program, which Bob helped found, has remained a solid element of local fire districts.

Those kids you see setting the table at the fire hall during the Blossom Festival pancake breakfast?

"Most of us are now in the officer corps," Chris said. And others are coming up.

As West Side and other fire districts look to the future, much hope must be placed in the community's youth.

Chris calls it "a great opportunity for kids to get involved."

He said Joe Correa, a Hood River fire volunteer and HRVHS teacher, is the new student firefighter advisor at the high school and is working hard to give the program renewed emphasis.

Chris Nickelsen points to a continued misperception many people have about the men and women who show up in helmets and heavy coats at fires and incidents.

"I think there are a lot of people who still think we're paid," he said. Only a few firefighters are "professional"; 80 percent in Oregon are unpaid people who must undergo extensive training to earn the right to fight fires. Safety regulations have added to the training rigor and the time commitment involved in being a firefighter, but Nickelsen notes that there are other support roles people can play.

"You don't necessarily need to be a full-fledged firefighter to be of service," he said. Helping with equipment or traffic control, or even clean-up are a few examples.

"There's something for everyone to do, and here in the valley we're all one team and one family," Nickelsen said.

Two other developments will lead to more cohesion among valley departments. One is this year's merger of the Pine Grove and Odell departments - now called Wy'east Fire District - and the other is the completion of the new Hood River fire hall, which Devon Wells said was designed in part to be a venue for joint training exercises.

Not everyone who ever trains as a firefighter will ever devote 60 years to it; Bob Nickelsen is a humble gold standard.

But the need for volunteers who can devote a few years of their lives is as great as ever, and in the valley the opportunities to serve continually get better equipped and organized.

As Bob Nickelsen puts it, "It's a great thing to do and it's a good place to learn."

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