When a call came in for a rescue truck needed in Sterling one day, he went to the fire station instead of going into his day job. In 1990 he joined the Kenai Fire Department as a firefighter and paramedic.
“That was the dedication I had from day one,” he said.
As his 25 years as a firefighter came to an end Thursday, the last seven years as Kenai Fire Marshal, Wilcox started to reflect on his experiences and how the community has changed during his tenure. Wednesday night colleagues from all around the Kenai Peninsula celebrated Wilcox’s career at a retirement party at the Kenai Senior Center.
Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker said the department would miss his knowledge of the community and his fire investigative abilities. The leadership he has provided to the crew would be the hardest to replace, he said.
“(Wilcox) has been successful in a unique position. Not many folks have as extensive knowledge in code enforcement as he does,” Tucker said. “He has made great connections in the community and good friends in the firehouse.”
His career almost ended before it got started. On his 30th birthday, Wilcox woke up with a headache. By the end of the night he was in a coma. When he awoke two days later a decision had to be made to operate on a non-cancerous brain tumor.
After three operations and several eye surgeries, Wilcox recovered and was back to work in two months.
Wilcox replaced James Baisden, now the Nikiski Fire Chief, as Kenai Fire Marshal in 2007. He said his responsibilities shifted from fighting fires to investigating them as well as educating business owners on building code enforcement to keep people safe. He said since he took the job he has inspected more than 550,000 square feet of new commercial buildings in Kenai.
“(The job) is a lot about educating business owners on what code is required for the safety of people coming into the building,” he said. “Hopefully I made a difference in safety.”
Wilcox made a difference in at least one colleague’s life. As a wayward teenager, CES Fire Captain Terry Bookey was out on a boat with four friends on the Cook Inlet when choppy waters flipped the boat over sending the five into the water. Wilcox was one of the responders and rescued the five from the depths of the sea.
“What do you say about someone you owe a life debt to?” Bookey said. “He saved my life. I can never say thank you enough.”
Bookey, a Kenai City Council member, said since that incident he become a firefighter and eventually worked under Wilcox, who was fire captain at the time.
Wilcox said thankfully a tourist called in the accident otherwise he never would have met Bookey.
“I always remind him when I see him,” Wilcox said. “I’m glad everything worked out. He is a good person, fire captain and is doing good things for the city.”
One of Wilcox’s most difficult experiences came shortly after he became fire marshal. In 2008, a mother and three children died in a house fire on Beaver Loop Road while the father was the only one to survive the fire. Wilcox worked day and night on the investigation. He said people became upset when the fire was deemed an accident and not arson.
“You have to go by what the fire is doing and not what people are saying,” Wilcox said. “That was a tough one. Anytime you have a loss in a fire in your town it hits hard.”
Wilcox recalled the fire on Marathon Road in 2009 ignited by a man’s four-wheeler that had a can of steel wool over the exhaust to work as a silencer. The wind-driven fire grew to 10 acres and without the aid of air support, 68 firefighters from Nikiski, Kenai and CES attacked the fire from the front as opposed to on the flanks – a risky tactic not exercised in wildland suppression efforts. The decision paid off as firefighters worked through the night to contain the blaze.
“We pulled off over a thousand feet of hose that stretched close to two miles of line,” he said. “Working at night all you can see is fire. Guys running around out there and you couldn’t see them.”
Wilcox said from when he started firefighting on the Kenai Peninsula, none of the three area fire chiefs would talk to each other. Now all the agencies work together. He said the bond between firemen and police officers is like family.
Kenai firefighter Tom Carver will take over as fire marshal effective Monday, July 28. Carver, a former Kenai Police officer and lifelong resident of Kenai, has worked on the same shift and trained by Wilcox on all the aspects of the jobs. Wilcox said his background in law enforcement is beneficial.
“(Carver) already knows a lot of people in the community and is familiar with the enforcement aspect,” he said.
Tucker said Carver is personable and his 20 years working for the City of Kenai will make for a smooth transition.
As for Wilcox, 50, he said he doesn’t have anything out there waiting for him but looks forward to spending more time with his wife and kids.
“I will probably fail at retirement,” he said. “This has been a good chapter in my life.”
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org