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First female career fire officer retires after 22 years

Posted: August 19, 2012 - 12:10am
Division Chief Beth Weldon is retiring after a career of 20 years with the Capital City Fire/Rescue.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Division Chief Beth Weldon is retiring after a career of 20 years with the Capital City Fire/Rescue.

Beth Weldon had just joined the Douglas Fire Department as a volunteer in 1990 when she responded to her first major fire.

The recent college graduate was playing soccer at Savikko field when she saw flames in the distance at the Island Apartments between the Douglas Post Office and Perseverance Theatre. She ran off the field straight to the scene to help.

“Never been in air pack, never been in anything, and they said ‘Hey, throw this air pack on, let’s go in,’” Weldon, now 47, recalled.

The fire was too deep-seated, and it destroyed the nine-unit apartment building, but none of the building’s residents were injured.

For Weldon, it’s what made her get serious about fire fighting and what prompted her to receive training in the field.

“I realized that I was going to get killed if I didn’t do some more training,” she said with a smile during an interview Friday at the Glacier Station.

The fourth-generation Douglas-ite passed her fire fighting and EMT tests shortly thereafter and become a certified firefighter. She went on to become Capital City Fire and Rescue’s first paid female officer.

Now, after 22 years on the job, Weldon says she’s retiring. Her last day on the job is Aug. 31. She and her husband plan on buying Glacier Auto Parts.

“It’s a new adventure,” she said.

Juneau and Douglas have seen many female firefighters throughout the years, said Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Richard Etheridge. Only five of them have gone on to be “career” firefighters, which means paid firefighters.

Weldon remains the only woman to become a paid officer for the department. She speculates that may be because of the tough hours. She says the only reason she was able to do it was because her family pitched in watching her young children, now 11 and 13.

“It’s a tough job, and I couldn’t have done it without A) my mom — she took care of my kids, she’s a great grandma — and B) my husband. There’s not too many men who would take any infant for a 24-hour shift,” she said. “You really have to have a good support group.”

Weldon was first hired on May 8, 1992, by the now retired fire chief Larry Fanning.

But it was during unfortunate circumstances, she remembers. A liter fell over the side of the regional fire training center building during a training exercise that year, killing a police officer and injuring two firefighters. One of the injured firefighters was a career firefighter who couldn’t return to work.

“I went to the hospital because they were friends of mine, and at that time Deputy Chief Mike Fenster pulled me aside and said you have 24 hours to decide if you want to work for the fire department,” she said.

At the time, the 27-year-old was commercial fishing during the summers and working for the Legislature during the winter, in addition to volunteering. She decided to sell her boat and began a new career as a full-time firefighter. She was promoted in 1999.

Being a woman in the fire department never presented any issues, she said.

“They accepted me quite well,” she said, when she first joined the Douglas Fire Department, which was loosely affiliated with CCFR then. The departments were consolidated in the mid-1990s.

“They didn’t have a problem with a woman at all, and also, I was a known person in the community. I came from a fishing background, so I was a little unusual for a female already,” she quipped.

She added with a wink, “At that time I had really big arms, so lifting things wasn’t a problem from me.”

She said she was warned of three men who may be tough on her. Turned out that one already knew her father from fishing, the other became a good friend, and the third is now planning her retirement party.

Weldon is currently CCFR’s Division Chief of Volunteers and is in charge of supervising all 70 volunteers and their training and stations. She said she will miss them immensely.

“They inspire you with their dedication, these people put in tons of hours,” she said in praise.

She said she hopes more women consider fire fighting as a career.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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