Friends mourn acting fire chief's death

Fenster remembered for his long-running contributions to firefighting and aviation

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

Juneau lost more than a fire chief Thursday night.

Mike Fenster, acting chief for Capital City Fire & Rescue and a co-founder of Wings of Alaska, "was an all-around nice guy," said former business partner Bob Jacobsen.

Fenster, 57, died of a heart attack Thursday, City Manager Rod Swope said. CCF&R responded to Fenster's 911 call, and emergency medical technicians performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on him on their way to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Swope described Fenster as a longtime personal friend and said he was notified of the call by Fire Marshal Rich Etheridge shortly after 9 p.m.. Swope said by the time he got to the hospital, Fenster had died.

Etheridge, the new acting chief, said the mood in the department Friday was "pretty somber. We're trying to pick up the pieces."

Swope appointed Fenster acting fire chief in November, after Chief Mike Doyle resigned. Fenster had been Doyle's assistant chief. Swope said Fenster told him he wasn't interested in Doyle's job, but had hoped he could help the next chief ease into it.

"He said he was looking forward to retiring in a couple of years," Swope said.

Fenster joined the Juneau Volunteer Fire Department on May 4, 1972, according to information compiled by the department. He was eight years out of Juneau-Douglas High School. He had also received a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Northrop Institute of Technology.

Merrill Sanford, a member of the Juneau Assembly, said he and Fenster had been friends in from high school. Fenster's family was long-established in Juneau, his father owning the bowling alley, Sanford recalled.

The people with deep local roots, he said, "are a dying part of the community. We lose more and more all the time."

Fenster cared about Juneau, he said. "He was a happy guy. He loved the community. He loved the work he was doing."

He also loved being a pilot, Sanford said.

Jacobsen, president and one of the owners of Wings of Alaska, said Fenster "was much more than a pilot. He was my mentor."

Fenster founded the company in 1982 with him and Drew Haage, he said. He said Fenster was both an excellent aviator and an excellent aircraft mechanic.

Fenster began working as the chief pilot for Southeast Skyways in 1971 and was the chief pilot and director of operations for Channel Flying from 1972 to 1975.

He remained vice president of Wings of Alaska from its founding until 1991, when he became the full-time assistant chief for CCF&R.

Jacobsen said Fenster still flew for Wings of Alaska on weekends.

"The Wings family is going to miss him," he said.

"Anybody could go to Mike about anything," Etheridge said.

"Mike was easy-going, laid back - you couldn't help but like him," Swope said, but added that Fenster responded well to emergencies. "He was very organized, meticulous in doing things."

Juneau will get a new fire chief no later than July 1, he said. Interviews are scheduled with five candidates for May 13 and 14. Two are from Alaska. The others are from Florida, Texas and Montana.

Any of them could have benefited from Fenster's knowledge of the department, Swope said.

He said he isn't looking at filling Fenster's position as assistant chief. Fenster had told him while in the top job that he didn't believe an assistant chief was necessary after the department's reorganization in recent months.

But the new chief would be better off had he the chance to work with Fenster, Swope said. "We're all that much better for having known Mike Fenster."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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