Snohomish chief fought fires, floods, squabbles for 32 years

SNOHOMISH — Mark Collins didn’t start out small town.

After college, he moved to Snohomish to fight fires.

He figured he’d stay awhile, and move on to something bigger and better.

He and the fire department grew up together.

Collins, 55, plans to retire this month after nearly 32 years at Snohomish County Fire District 4 in Snohomish.

Collins has served as fire chief since 2004.

As chief, he tried to be open and fair, he said. He focused on professionalism, teamwork and safety. He tried to stay out of the politics.

In 1981, Snohomish had just three career firefighters, including him. The rest were volunteers who worked nights.

There weren’t many fire-protection sprinklers, then. A lot of buildings were made of wood.

“I was a master at putting out chimney fires,” he said. “Constantly, things were burning around here.”

He worked big fires, too, including the 1982 blaze at Delgaty Foods plant along Maple Street that caused $11 million damage and took most of the weekend to knock down. He also worked the 1993 Coast to Coast hardware store fire along Main Street in Monroe.

In that fire, the ceiling collapsed. Snohomish and Monroe firefighters were trapped inside. They made it out alive.

“That was probably the most stressful five minutes of my life,” Collins said. “That was the closest, scariest moment.”

Some of Collins’ memories on the job are heroic. Others are slapstick. Some are too sad to share.

People joke about firefighters saving cats, but he did it.

If the crews weren’t busy, and it was safe, he was OK with plucking cats out of trees or off old ladies’ roofs, he said. Once, they saved a dog that was stuck in a pipe.

“The best calls in general were the ones where you solved a problem, but no one got hurt,” he said.

There were floods, too, especially during the diking district wars before the federal and county government began coordinating levy systems in the Snohomish River valley in the 1990s.

He remembers warning folks to evacuate flood zones, and the desperate calls that came later from those who didn’t.

One flood, Collins and his wife, Nancy, sat on the bridge that takes Highway 9 over the river and the railroad tracks. Most of the tracks were submerged. A man was using them as a bridge over the water, walking on the ties, Collins said. A tie gave way.

“The wood just fell out from underneath him, and he just went between the two railroad ties and went kerplunk into this floodwater that was pouring through this thing,” he said.

Somehow, the water carried the man to safe ground.

“It kind of eddied, and it didn’t flush him right out in the river,” Collins said. “He was lucky.”

Meanwhile, for folks at City Hall, Collins was a trustworthy and straight-forward colleague, Snohomish City Manager Larry Bauman said.

The chief improved the fire department’s ability to provide advanced emergency medical services in Snohomish, Bauman said. Collins worked to pass levies that supported staffing and equipment.

“He provided the leadership to help us get there, to help the community get there,” Bauman said.

To the crews, Collins was “honest and fair,” said Craig Heike, a longtime Snohomish firefighter and battalion chief.

Heike remembers Collins as a new firefighter, too, he said.

The crews then used to tease Collins because he never got to drive the rigs.

“He learned the fire district by looking out the back window of the aid car,” Heike said.

As chief, Collins also earned the respect of the other fire chiefs in the county, Lake Stevens Fire Chief Dave Lingenfelter said.

Collins brought integrity and honor to the job, even in hard times, Lingenfelter said.

When Collins became chief, the fire district was making budget cuts and suffering from internal squabbles, Collins said. The last chief had been fired, and the emergency medical services levy failed to pass. Rifts had developed between career crews and volunteers.

Collins asked everyone if they wanted to fight for another 20 years, or work on solutions, he said.

“He kind of brought everybody through all that,” Deputy Fire Chief Ron Simmons said. “He’s done a lot of good things for the district.”

Now, the fire department needs energy to move forward, Collins said. He’s not sure he has it anymore. The stress has built over time.

Once retired, he wants to mend an old, lingering back injury. He wants to get back onto his bike, into the swimming pool and out on the trails. He wants to hang out with his two grandkids.

He’ll probably take up teaching safety classes, something he’s done since he was a teenaged lifeguard.

It took a few years, but Collins realized Snohomish was a good place, he said.

He stayed because he knew he could do good work there.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com

A public reception for retiring Snohomish Fire Chief Mark Collins is planned from 4 to 7 p.m. Jan. 2 at Fire Station 43, 1525 Avenue D, Snohomish.

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