The American flag at the front of the East Pierce Fire & Rescue headquarters station in Bonney Lake was flying at half-staff Thursday (July 26).
That day, staff members and local department representatives gathered for the 10th anniversary of the death of former Chief Dan Packer, who died battling a wildfire in California in 2008, just shy of his 50th birthday.
The flag was a reminder that it was a rough week to be a first responder.
On July 22, Orting Valley Fire and Rescue announced the death of Capt. Art Vazquez, who “took his own life as a result of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”, according to a Facebook post. That same day, Kent police officer Diego Moreno was fatally struck by a patrol car during a police chase.
“With the news of just the last week alone ... there’s some raw emotions,” East Pierce Fire Chief Bud Backer said at the remembrance ceremony for Packer. “In fact, there’s the likelihood that we may have a little bit of a smaller turnout today, just because some of the guys are kind of struggling with the emotion of it all.”
Every year since Packer’s death, the department has held a small ceremony to remember him on the day he died. This being the 10th anniversary, the department did a slightly larger ceremony, with members of the department gathering to salute Packer with music in the background.
The annual ceremony is a way for the department to remember Packer’s legacy and pass it on to a new generation.
“In the last 10 years we’ve hired about 46 people,” Backer said. “Thirty percent of the department did not have the chance to work with Chief Packer. It’s up to those who did to share with the new folks what Chief Packer meant to this community and to talk about the legacy that he has left us.”
Packer was the force behind the creation of East Pierce Fire in 2000. His coworkers remembered him as personable and cordial — a chief who remembered everyone’s name.
“Even though he was the chief of the department you could approach him at any time and strike up a conversation and it wasn’t like he had somewhere else to be,” said Lt. Mason Lewis, a firefighter paramedic Packer hired 13 years ago. “He was more than willing to stand there and listen and talk with you, almost like he was an equal.”
After every ceremony, Lewis said, he likes to gather the crews together and have them share what they remember of Packer.
“That way that information can be passed on to those younger guys who didn’t meet him,” Lewis said. “(They) can understand our history and how much he affected us. ... We hope to carry on the traditions he set forth.”
The department also takes the time to review safety protocol.
“The other thing we get out of (the remembrance), which I know Chief Packer would want, is we also review safety standards and remind ourselves of performing safe operations, not just with wildfires but with everything we do,” Backer said.
East Pierce Fire also helped Orting’s fire department after the loss of Vazquez, providing emotional support and manpower so the department could take part in his procession.
“We remember our fallen,” Backer said.