by Courtney Oldwyn
Special to the Sounder
Last Tuesday, 10 emergency vehicles, lights flashing, and more than 30 people came out to honor San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler upon his final return to the island he so loved.
He was met on the taxi way by fellow firefighters, both volunteer and retired, ancillary personnel, EMS staff, Paramedics, Sheriff Ron Krebs and members of the San Juan County Police Department, airport personnel, friends and neighbors. San Juan Island Fire & Rescue administrative assistant Carolyn Hudson presented him with his white duty helmet before the entire procession of emergency vehicles followed his ambulance to Peace Island Hospital in Friday Harbor. Chief Marler passed away Thursday, Jan. 28, just two days after returning home.
“Whenever he had to leave the island he couldn’t wait to return to the life he loved,” said Sheila Harley, Public Information Officer for San Juan Fire and Rescue.
Chief Marler came to Friday Harbor in Aug. 2007 with his wife Karen after competing for and winning the position of Fire Chief for San Juan County Fire Protection District 3 which includes all of San Juan Island, Brown and Pearl Islands. Marler had previously been the assistant chief at the Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority in California.
Hudson remembers first meeting Chief Marler during the interview process. She arrived with snacks and drinks for the potential candidates and was hurriedly unloading supplies, when Marler quietly pitched in to help. She noticed the other candidates who had been milling around stopped abruptly when they realized they should all be helping too. “This was his nature, not a test to impress or fair better. He was just wired to help,” she said.
“This summer, Steve was one of the first to call to offer his support after the EMS chief left. He sat on the EMS Chief selection committee and was invaluable. During that interim period without a chief, it was a relief to know that he was willing to help and offer his insight in a friendly manner whenever it was needed,” said Cady Davies, San Juan Island EMS Executive Assistant.
Marler was well respected and admired for bringing San Juan County Fire and Friday Harbor fire departments together in a logical yet very politically charged merger. “It was one of the most important things he did,” said interim fire chief Brad Creesy. “There had been 50 years of dispute before he was able to quietly and efficiently get everyone to the table and set up the arrangement we have now. I will always appreciate the subtle and non-confrontational way he got the town and the fire district to work together. It was really nothing short of amazing. It’s a huge part of his legacy,” said Creesy.
“He was a problem solver, a collaborator,” said San Juan Island Fire and Rescue Captain Neil Monin. “He was a nemisis of anything of fire. Steve always carried an air of serenity to the fire ground. His polite and unassuming presence, combined with logical and accurate application of fire science resulted in a very natural command authority.”
A well equipped, trained and efficient department without over taxing local homeowners was a priority to Marler as shown in a column he wrote for the Journal in 2014.
“This year, some major changes are taking place, and you need to know why they’re happening and to be assured your taxes will not be going up because of them,” he wrote.
Under Marler’s reign the district was able to pay off existing bond debts early, refinance and buy the district six new fire trucks.
“He left the organization in extremely good financial condition,” said Creesy.
Marler’s sense of humor was a big piece of who he was and part of why he was so well loved by his crew. Fire Department Lt. Tad Lean was always fond of his Chief’s way of motivating his staff when they were working on the fire trucks.
“We would be turning wrenches in the apparatus bay and Steve would frequently wander through politely, giving his signature wave with a cocked head and a big smile … and of course some witty comment of sarcastic inspiration,” said Lean.
Mentoring young fire fighters was also important to him.
Emily Pruitt, 19 was one of the young trainees who looked up to Chief Marler.
One time, while putting out a small driftwood fire at South Beach in the middle of the night Pruitt remembers Chief Marler catching her laughing.
“He asked me if I was having fun and I said ‘Yes, sir’ and he just laughed,” said Pruitt. “He was like that, his sense of humor, I will miss that most …“He always cracked jokes. He would always keep us laughing if things got very heavy. Everyone loved him.”
Pruitt is currently studying fire science at Skagit Valley College.
“I grew up knowing him, he is one of the reasons I went into this as a career and now he won’t be there to see me graduate,” said Pruitt.
This past year Marler’s two children Stephanie, along with her husband and two young children and his son Johnathan moved to Friday Harbor. Having his grandchildren close meant a lot to him.
Creesy says he was “absolutely devoted” to his kids and grandkids.
“On Jan. 28 this county lost a member of our family,” said Sheriff Ron Krebs. “Steve was a kind, gentle, giant of a man with a huge heart and a great sense of humor. His loss will be felt by all of us for years to come. You are gone but never forgotten Steve. Thank you for your service. ”