Dean Kahn

How do you honor fallen firefighters who died decades ago?

Ferndale Fire Chief Clyde Eaton, center, died in the line of duty in 1950. He would be honored at a new memorial in Olympia if the Washington State Fallen Firefighters Foundation raises enough money.
Ferndale Fire Chief Clyde Eaton, center, died in the line of duty in 1950. He would be honored at a new memorial in Olympia if the Washington State Fallen Firefighters Foundation raises enough money. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Two markers pay quiet honor to Clyde Eaton, the Ferndale fire chief who died in the line of duty 66 years ago.

One marker is personal; his gravestone at Greenacres Memorial Park bears the imprint of his badge. The other marker is public; a month after he died, the Ferndale street he lived on was renamed Eaton Avenue.

Gary Russell, chief of Whatcom County Fire District 7, in Ferndale, decided Eaton deserves more recognition, so he relayed information about him to the Washington State Fire Fighters’ Association, which honors fallen firefighters at a memorial service each year.

“This should be a no-brainer,” Russell said. “I want him recognized.”

There was a problem, however. The ceremony held each June in Olympia honors firefighters who have died the previous year, not decades ago.

But change is in the works.

We wanted to do something to capture these guys because they’d never been honored on a state level.

Pat Ellis, Kent Fire Department

A new nonprofit, the Washington State Fallen Firefighters Foundation, has been created to raise money for a permanent memorial in Olympia where the names of Eaton and at least 216 other firefighters who have died on the job would be forever etched in stone.

At the ceremony in June that honored eight firefighters, the names of the 217 who have died since the late 1800s were posted temporarily for all to see in the Capitol Rotunda. It was the first time that had been done.

“We wanted to do something to capture these guys because they’d never been honored on a state level,” said chaplain Pat Ellis, the crisis-intervention coordinator at the Kent Fire Department, who has overseen the annual ceremony the past five years.

The ceremony in Olympia was established in 1985. A bronzed Maltese cross on a granite cairn marks the memorial at the state’s Fire Training Academy in North Bend, but it hasn’t been kept up to date, and it lacks room for more names, Ellis said.

He hopes enough money can be raised to build a memorial on the Capitol Campus in Olympia within five years, with room for all firefighters who have died and for those to come. Fundraising is in the early stages, with no official price tag.

“It won’t be cheap. That’s for sure,” Ellis said.

Died from lung damage

Eaton was a machinist and mechanic in Ferndale for 20 years and a member of Blaine’s Fire Department before he joined the Ferndale department in 1922 as a driver. He served as Ferndale’s chief for two decades, from 1930 until his death.

Ferndale Fire Chief Clyde Eaton ordered a retreat, but a gasoline barrel exploded, covering him and another firefighter in flames.

Eaton upgraded the department during his tenure, initiating fire-drill nights, acquiring accident insurance to protect his firefighters, and upgrading the department’s water supply, for example.

An inventive man, he came up with the idea of “extinguisher grenades,” light bulbs filled with dry extinguisher power to throw at fires, and he rescued a cow that had fallen into a well by filling the well from the department’s water tender and floating the animal to the surface.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, March 22, 1950, Eaton, his son John, and other firefighters, responded to an alarm. Eaton and another firefighter had a hose on a gasoline barrel when Eaton recognized it was getting too hot. He ordered a retreat, but the barrel exploded before they could reach safety.

Eaton and his colleague staggered away, covered in flames. Other firefighters rolled them on the ground to put out the flames, and a patrolman raced the victims to St. Luke’s Hospital in Bellingham.

The other firefighter survived with burns on his hands, neck and face. Eaton had more extensive burns, most of them second-degree. His condition worsened and he died early in the morning March 27 from fire damage to his lungs.

To help

To contribute to a memorial for fallen firefighters in Washington, or to suggest firefighters to be honored, contact Pat Ellis at PEllis@kentwa.gov.

  Comments