Don Waller gave his all for Fire District 6
For more than 45 years, Don Waller devoted his life to firefighting in the Methow Valley, starting as a volunteer in high school and working over the years to create a fire district of four stations that he led as chief for many years.
Waller died on Nov. 6 at home in Winthrop, about a year after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that resulted from his exposure to toxins during his years as a firefighter, according to his son. Waller was 65.
Longtime colleagues in Okanogan County Fire District 6 credit Waller with tirelessly advocating for firefighters, from his days as a volunteer fire chief until his retirement as the first paid chief of the district.
“He lived and breathed firefighting,” said Darold Brandenburg. “He gave his entire life to it, not just the death, but the whole thing.
“I’ve known Don my entire life. I’ve been fighting fires with him for 26 years. Don has made more sacrifices than just about anyone I know in this town,” said Brandenburg, who serves as a commissioner for the fire district.
Don Waller started his fire career as a volunteer at the Winthrop station in 1972 when he was 18 and still in high school. At the time, fire protection was provided by four stations that operated independently of each other, said Cody Acord, who became fire chief after Waller’s retirement in 2018.
Waller became an assistant chief in Winthrop in 1976 and chief in 1981, both volunteer positions. During his years as a volunteer firefighter, he worked for the Okanogan County public works department. When the different stations in the valley were consolidated into a fire district, Waller became the first full-time paid fire chief in 2002, Acord said.
“According to his son, when the siren went off, Don ran from his house through the neighbors’ yards to the Winthrop station, because it was faster than driving,” Acord said.
When Waller began volunteering, the Winthrop station was a two-bay garage. “You could park two trucks in it, you couldn’t do anything else in it,” Acord said. Waller led ongoing expansion of the station over many years, pulling together work parties and participating in all of them.
“He pounded almost every nail, poured all the concrete, did the drywall, etc.,” Acord said in information he gathered for a retirement party for Waller in 2018. “Don also spent hours building fire trucks from scratch,” including brush trucks, tenders and rescues vehicles, Acord said. “There wasn’t much money and you had to do what you had to do.”
Waller saw the need to replace old military vehicles that the district used for brush rigs and tenders, recalled Roy Reiber, who was a firefighter and served as a fire district commissioner for many years. “The tenders were terrible. You could be flat-out lights and sirens going to Mazama and tourists would pass you,” Reiber said.
Reiber, who taught Waller chemistry and biology classes in high school, later became a volunteer firefighter and a volunteer assistant chief under Waller. He credited Waller with having the “vision” to modernize the district. “During the time I was commissioner we replaced every vehicle in every station in the district. He orchestrated that. He was a forward thinker and he got a million things done,” Reiber said.
“He’s the guy that took four separate small stations and put them into one district. He’s never gotten the credit he deserves,” Reiber said. Among firefighters, Waller “was very appreciated,” Reiber said. “He dedicated his entire life to the firefighters and the district, and they recognize it.”
Waller also expanded a program to recruit and train high school students as volunteer firefighters, giving them responsibility and setting high expectations. Many went on to become career firefighters, Acord said.
During the last eight years of his tenure as chief, Waller advocated for construction of a new fire hall to replace the Winthrop station, which district officials have said is outdated and cramped, and poses safety risks to firefighters. The proposed new station has had critics who called it too expensive, and Waller was frustrated by the failures of a bond election in 2008 and a levy election in 2014 to fund a new station.
“When you’re passionate about something and you know it’s needed, you get frustrated at times,” Acord said. “In my mind a lot of people may not have seen eye-to-eye with Don on things, but when you got to know him, he was really passionate and cared about the people around him. People may not have known that.”
The public controversy about the station “affected his health,” Reiber said. “He was under a lot of pressure.” Waller took a two-year paid leave of absence at the end of 2016 under a contract that compensated him for more than 4,000 hours of vacation and sick leave accrued over 14 years as chief, an arrangement that also drew public criticism. Acord served as acting chief until Waller retired at the end of his leave in 2018. Waller continued to volunteer for the district until he became ill.
Waller’s son, Don, a deputy fire chief in Snohomish County, said his father’s cancer has been attributed to exposure as a firefighter, and in a recent letter to the editor published in the Methow Valley News, he urged the community to support funding for a new fire station that would include decontamination facilities to reduce firefighter exposure.
Brandenburg said Waller’s dogged pursuit of a new fire station was done in the interest of firefighter health and safety. “If you want to keep a volunteer-based fire department and keep taxes low, you need to protect the volunteers,” Brandenburg said. “He had an insight into our needs and what we were lacking. Don didn’t know how to get that out to the people so people could understand,” he said.
“I take this stuff personally,” Brandenburg said. “You can’t have someone volunteer in this community and have him go out like this, and act like it’s OK.”
No memorial services are planned yet for Waller, who had one son and two grandchildren. Brandenburg said family members have said a service may be held in the spring.