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Burton stepping down from chief's role in St. Joe

Town of St. Joseph Fire Chief Ron Burton stands next to the department's newest truck — a rescue/engine that he was instrumental in acquring. Burton retired as chief on Dec. 31 but will continue on as a firefighter with the department. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

TOWN OF ST. JOSEPH — Ron Burton blames his dad.

The town of St. Joseph fire chief recalls how his father, an assistant fire chief running a truck out of Burkhardt, would take him along on fire calls decades ago. Burton remembers the allure of the siren wails and light flashes as they responded to calls.

"It was a pretty cool thing for a little boy," he said.

That early exposure was all it took to spawn his own firefighting career.

"I don't know that I had much choice in the matter," he said with a chuckle.

But after more than 20 years as St. Joe's fire chief, Burton is stepping down from the post in a decision he said allows "younger blood" to tackle the role.

"It's time," he said, noting that he will continue to serve as a volunteer firefighter after Dec. 31, his last day as chief.

Assistant Fire Chief Charles Barrette will move into the top role for the remainder of Burton's term before the 29-member department votes on a new chief.

Cale Dahm, a captain in the department, said Burton's leadership ability struck him when he came aboard as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. The man didn't panic in the face of danger and brought a sense of calm that Dahm said made a difference in high-pressure situations.

"I truly believe that is something that comes natural and cannot be taught," he said. "It'll be weird not having Ron be the chief anymore, but I've looked at Ron as more than a chief. He's a great role model when it comes to being a great family man, his dedication to the town and overall a great friend."

Burton joined the department about 35 years ago and ascended to the chief's role in 1996.

He said being a firefighter is something of a calling — one that means you're willing to pry yourself from a warm bed at 2 a.m. out into the cold to help your neighbors.

"You have to have that passion and want to help," the St. Joe resident said.

Along the the way, he's come to appreciate the fellowship among firefighters that few other vocations foster.

"They're there to help if need be," he said. "Most people run away from an emergency. They run to it."

Focus on safety

Burton's also witnessed a lot of change after more than three decades of firefighting. He said technology and equipment improvements have helped make the biggest gains in protecting firefighters, saving victims and protecting structures.

Training and strategy techniques have also improved, he said, noting how the approach to battling house fires in the 1980s was to douse the blaze from a distance. Today, he said firefighters are trained to enter structures when possible and attack fires at their source.

"Now it's pretty aggressive," Burton said.

He also lauded the increasing emphasis on firefighter safety.

It hasn't always been that way, Burton said, offering the example of firefighters riding on the tailboards of fire trucks on the way to calls — a common practice decades ago.

"Now you don't stand on tailboards to go across the parking lot," he said.

Looking back

A few major fire calls stand out to Burton over the decades.

The first big one he remembers was a Burkhardt feed mill that burned in 1975.

"There was so much fuel in that thing," he recalled, noting how he was alerted to it through a calling tree used those days in place of a horn or a scanner tone. "You could see the glow from the house."

Burton also remembers the JR Ranch fire from the 1980s in Hudson. It was the first one he was along for that brought such a massive multi-agency response.

"That was exciting," he said.

The last call that stirs memories was from 2008 when the St. Croix Storage & Transfer warehouse burned in North Hudson. Burton said he'll not soon forget the extent of that blaze and the resources needed to extinguish it.

Burton noted none of those calls involved injuries or deaths. He said he's also been fortunate; his most memorable close call was a house fire in Somerset where the floor collapsed just before he and other firefighters were about to go into the basement.

He also noted how his career as a first responder came to an end after a "confused patient" pulled a .357 magnum on him. He dove down some stairs to avoid that situation and later determined it would be his last first-responder call.

Burton will be trading in long hours at the fire station for more time with his wife, Sara, who he said has supported him from the get-go and endured his abrupt departures from children's birthday parties to respond to calls. He's also looking forward to more time with granddaughters Audrey and Leilani, the offspring of his two daughters Chelsea (Brandon) Barclay and Lindsey (Jeff) Ledoux.

He said he also plans to spend more time on his hobby farm when he's not hunting and fishing, or downhill skiing in the winter.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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