Fire Chief Lonnie Rash took over the top position at Spokane County Fire District 8 south of Spokane and Spokane Valley with little fanfare last month after longtime Fire Chief Tony Nielsen retired.
Nielsen was content to leave without a public sendoff, but those who drive by the district’s headquarters inside Station 82 in Valleyford will notice a tribute to Nielsen – a blue street sign marking the driveway that reads “Nielsen Way.”
The district’s board of fire commissioners wanted to do something to honor Nielsen that was meaningful, Rash said. It is a street sign, but it also refers to Nielsen’s way, which was to create a mindset of kindness, understanding and professionalism throughout the district, Rash said.
“It’s not only a way into the fire station, it’s also the way he was in the fire district,” he said.
Neilsen had led the district as chief since 2013, but he’d been working for the district on and off since 1984. He was a part of the district’s Explorer program at the age of 16, and when he turned 18 he became a resident firefighter in the district. He worked as an EMT for Spokane Ambulance and Arrow Ambulance in Coeur d’Alene before he took a job as a firefighter in Port Angeles, Washington, in 1991. He came back to District 8 in 2003 as the division chief of training, a job he held until the former fire chief retired and he was selected to lead the department.
Rash followed a similar path. He grew up in Bozeman and began working as a volunteer firefighter at Central Valley Fire District in 1988. The experience prompted him to leave his career in law enforcement to become a firefighter. He would work his way up in the district to become a battalion chief before leaving Montana to come to District 8 in 2005.
Rash left District 8 in 2012 to become fire chief in Burlington, Washington, but found the busy area wasn’t for him. After 18 months, he came back as the assistant chief of operations in Spokane County Fire District 4, where he stayed until he took a job back in District 8 as the assistant chief of operations in 2018.
When Nielsen announced his retirement in October, the board asked Rash if he was interested in taking over. They wanted continuity in the department, particularly during a pandemic, Rash said.
“They really just offered me the position,” he said.
Rash said he had hoped to become chief of District 8 one day and was glad to be offered the position.
“I did not come back with that intent,” he said. “I was very happy being an assistant chief and working with Tony.”
With experience as a fire chief in Burlington, Rash is used to the demands of the job, but misses some aspects of his former assistant chief job.
“It’s different because I’m not hands-on day to day,” he said. “That’s different for me as a chief instead of an assistant chief.”
Rash said he’s looking at the department to see if there are any ways to be more efficient. A lot of his job will be to ensure the department’s funding stays where it needs to be, he said.
“I think funding is a priority,” he said. “That will be a significant challenge, I think, in the future to maintain our level of service.”
In the very long term, the department will have to consider replacing Station 84 in the Ponderosa area, which was built in the 1970s and is too small for the number of personnel using it. At some point, Station 85 in the Saltese area will likely need an upgrade to continue serving the rapidly growing population, Rash said. While either of those projects are likely many years down the road, Rash believes the planning needs to start sooner rather than later.
When Rash returned to the district in 2018, he said he wanted to stay there until he retired. That hasn’t changed.
“I have every intention of staying here as long as I can and retire from Fire District 8,” he said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.