As the news retired fire chief Steve Wakefield died following a third stroke last week continues to spread through the community, many heartfelt and touching testimonials of respect and admiration continue from his peers and colleagues.
Wakefield started as a firefighter in 1976. After running a local restaurant and a garbage collection business, Wakefield joined the fire department and began working his way through the ranks.
“Steve joined the fire department a year before me,” lifelong friend Richard Wier said. “We came through it as brothers, with over 40 years at it...”
Wier said their friendship went even further back to when they were alter boys together as kids. They also experienced the 1964 tsunami as kids together, long before joining the fire department in 1976 and 1977.
The two went through many local incidents ranging from small calls to three evacuations of the city, including the 2011 tsunami.
Wier said he has watched over time as Crescent City’s little volunteer fire department blossomed into a large unit, to one handling call volumes of more than 1,600 calls per year,
“Steve was instrumental in joining the two departments,” Wier said. “That was an outstanding accomplishment.”
Wier said he also admired Wakefield’s commitment to his community.
“I’ve never seen such dedication to the 24-7, 365 (job),” he said. “He’s left big boots to fill.”
Wier repeated the oft-stated sentiment many patients, law enforcement and other first responders have expressed, that Wakefield’s arrival on the scene of an emergency was always a relief to all involved.
“Steve was the one who could handle the most complicated calls but would still be willing to get a cat down from a tree,” he said. “He never turned anything down.”
Saying he could go on all day, Wier simply concluded, “He was a good man, a good, good man.”
Former County Emergency Services Manager Cindy Henderson recalled she began running medical calls with Wakefield in 1990, and that he worked tirelessly at his job since before she could remember.
“Steve was one of those first responders you knew would be there for his community at all times,” she said. “He cared. He was compassionate. He was an amazing man. He will never be replaced and will always be someone that we will always strive to be to our community.”
Among those who worked with Wakefield, City Manager Eric Wier did so in many capacities, along with knowing him since his own childhood.
“Steve was everything you want in a fire chief,” Eric Wier said. “He was dedicated, courageous, knowledgeable, humble, caring, and probably the best way I could describe Steve is that he was a relentless, humble force. He showed this in the positive changes he implemented in the fire department and in the way he was beating all odds to recover from the debilitating stroke he had over one year ago.”
Eric Wier noted Wakefield was instrumental in combining two local departments to create Crescent City Fire and Rescue in 2015, while stressing the importance of volunteers.
“He also knew that maximizing the full potential of the department meant breaking down historic jurisdictional barriers within the city and Crescent Fire Protection District to creating a unified fire force,” he said. “This was no easy task, and trust me, much easier said than done.”
Eric Wier said while serving as the city fire chief, Wakefield also took on the responsibilities of the Crescent Fire Protection District, embarking on joint training and completion of procedural requirements.
“In 2015, ten years after Chief Wakefield started what some considered an impossible journey, the joining of the departments was official and the unified force of Crescent City Fire and Rescue was born,” he said. “Looking back on it now, running over 1,600 calls as a volunteer fire department, I can’t imagine how we could serve this community without the merger, which would not have been possible without the leadership of Steve Wakefield.”
Annette Carlson, a firefighter and EMT with CCFR, recalled a gift from Wakefield she said was better than a million dollar lottery ticket.
While pregnant with her last child, Carlson was in the process of renewing her EMT license but was not affiliated with a fire department or ambulance company, as required. She said Wakefield met with her and agreed to add her name to the department roster with the agreement that she would join as soon as possible after having her child.
“Steve put his own license on the line for me,” she said. “I wanted to pursue becoming a physician assistant, and I joined the department over three years ago. I’ve been accepted into Yale to become a physician assistant and I started in January of this year.”
Carlson said she is still moved by Wakefield’s assistance and his requirement that she aim to better her community.
“That gift of faith from my chief that I would follow through and do this to improve my community was better than a million-dollar lottery ticket,” she said.
Fire Battalion Chief Ray Rook called Tuesday after attending a luncheon at the fire hall, where he was struck by how Wakefield’s legacy is being carried forward. Rook recalled Wakefield used to cook for volunteers at any event involving food.
“The volunteers were very special to him,” Rook said. “I was just reflecting on that as the type of family environment Steve embodied.”
“He always valued the volunteers as his number one priority and made sure each and every one of them knew that,” Eric said.
Referring to Wakefield as his mentor, Rook said, in many ways, Wakefield’s guidance has guided many aspects of his own life from his family to his coaching of local school teams. Rook said while he could talk about Wakefield all day, he would describe Wakefield with one word — valiant.
CCFR Administrative Assistant Vanessa Duncan said she worked with Wakefield only a couple years but in working with him, her initial intimidation was replaced by admiration for him.
“When I think of Chief Wakefield, there isn’t a positive character trait that I could come across that wouldn’t be fitting for him,” she said. “If I could only choose three words to describe him, they would be: humble, caring and dedicated. I would hear some of the most amazing stories about rescues, but Steve was never one to gloat in his own achievements; he was truly here to serve his community and wasn’t looking for any type of recognition for his countless good deeds. I was in constant awe of his willingness to put others before himself.”
Sheriff’s Commander and Fire Engineer Bill Steven said on looking back at his own life over the last 50 years, he could count the list of people who shaped and influenced him on one hand.
“Steve made the list for two reasons. The first is obvious, how selfless and compassionate he was towards people having a bad day in Del Norte County,” Steven said “The second reason was my respect for how one guy at the top could garner so much respect from such a large group of people by just being himself. There are people who can effortlessly bind or glue organizations together and just give you that calming feeling when they show up at something bad. That something is still bad but now its seemingly more under control and a little more bearable.”
“When I hear the phrase ‘my door is always open,’ I think of him,” Duncan said. “He always had time, no matter what was going on in his life, he always made time for everyone. Some of the best memories I have working at the fire department are of Steve, sitting in his office, telling a funny joke and throwing his head back and letting out a big chuckle. His positivity was contagious. He soon became my family, not just my friend. It’s not often that you get to say you look forward to going to work every day, Steve made this fire station a home. His legacy will live on through everyone here at Crescent City Fire & Rescue in our hearts and in our home.”
Fire Chief Bill Gillespie said while he hadn’t worked with or for Wakefield, he knew him and respected him as a fire chief and peer.
“He was steady, calm, and anyone who spent 20-plus years as a chief has an incredible knowledge base.,” Gillespie said. “He had a great laugh, too.”
Gillespie noted while fire suppression may seem large as a whole, most firefighters train and attend meetings together.
“Steve taught everyone who wanted to learn what it is to truly serve your community; he was the perfect example of this. He served his community, his firefighters and visitors to the Crescent City area each and every day,” he said. “He was a leader, and a servant leader. He took care of his firefighters just as he took care of his community, with dedication, devotion, and love. He was the glue in the community and fire department that held so many things together, and worked to always make things better.”
Funeral Services and a Celebration of Life are 11 a.m. Saturday at Cornerstone Church on Douglas Street. The Celebration of Life will take place at the Crescent City Fire station on 5th and I streets in downtown Crescent City.