GRANITE FALLS — Former Granite Falls Fire Chief Rick Hjelle said he was a good firefighter and a terrible drunk.
Hjelle, 47, resigned his job Dec. 21 after serving Snohomish County Fire District 17 for nearly 32 years, 20 as its chief.
He said his departure was hastened by allegations in early November from fire union officials that he was drinking on the job.
While Hjelle admitted that he has struggled with a drinking problem, he vehemently denied ever drinking on the job.
“I was an everyday drinker and I probably smelled like an everyday drinker,” he said Wednesday.
He said he never violated the public’s trust.
Since Nov. 6, Hjelle said he’s been in treatment for alcohol abuse. He said he’s now sober and healthy.
The same day Hjelle entered treatment, he was placed on paid leave, said Bill Gillam, president of the fire district’s board of commissioners.
A union official called Gillam on Nov. 4 and accused Hjelle of smelling like alcohol while on duty.
Hjelle also was accused of smelling of booze when he arrived at the scene of an accident, off duty, in a fire department vehicle, according to fire department documents obtained by The Herald under the state’s public records laws.
“(Department) staff on scene stated it was obvious he was still not in a condition to come to work,” Gillam wrote in a report. “Apparently he took charge of the scene and made some questionable calls as to patient care.”
Hjelle denied the allegations. He said the crash took place adjacent to his property and he personally dialed 911 to summon uniformed help.
Fire district officials ordered an investigation, Gillam said.
The investigation was conducted at the direction of an attorney for the fire district at a cost of about $4,000, including the attorney fees, records show.
The investigation was concluded and no action was taken, Gillam said. The report was not released, citing attorney-client confidentiality.
Hjelle said he had long been planning to retire from the district before the allegations were made.
He was proud of work he’d done to build the district’s capabilities but it was time for a change. Hjelle said he first entered the fire service when he was just 15.
“It’s time for some fresh leadership, fresh energy and fresh ideas,” he said.
The commissioners on Dec. 31 appointed Deputy Chief Jim Haverfield as the interim chief. Haverfield has worked for the district since 1994.
Hjelle now works on his farm, spending time with family and trying to put his problems behind him.
“I don’t have any secrets to hide,” he said. “I’m not going back to drinking.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, firstname.lastname@example.org.