Lonnie Click's long career as a Tri-City firefighter started with a simple suggestion from his former father-in-law more than 25 years ago.
"He told me I should look at joining a department because it was steady work," Click said. "I always thought I was going to be building houses."
Now, almost three decades later, Click is in line to lead Benton County's largest fire district.
Click, 51, was hired in December to replace Mike Harris as Benton Fire District 1's deputy fire chief. Harris, 48, left to become the chief at Franklin Fire District 3.
As deputy chief, Click is in charge of running daily operations at the district. Grant Baynes is the district's administrative chief, overseeing administrative duties and supervising staff and the budget.
Baynes, who also is Richland's fire chief, handpicked Click to take over for him at District 1 when he eventually retires, he said. He is training Click to handle administrative duties such as the budget and tax levy campaigns.
Baynes first tried recruiting Click over the phone while Click was fighting a fire in Southwest Oregon.
"Our goal was to hire someone who is capable of keeping the trust and collaborative effort going," Baynes said. "I really had the confidence in Lonnie. We know he values the collaborative piece. If I didn't think he had that, I would have never made that phone call."
Click started out as volunteer with District 1 in 1985 before joining the Hanford Fire Department as full-time firefighter a year later. He volunteered with District 1 until 2001.
Click, who is originally from Royal City, worked his way up the ranks at Hanford, becoming a captain in 1996 and a battalion chief three years later. He was eventually promoted to assistant operations chief in 2007, a position he held until joining District 1.
Click said he was proud of everything he accomplished while at Hanford, including helping to develop a wildland fire management plan and training firefighters who have since taken over leadership positions in the department.
"We really raised the bar," he said. "It was time to (leave) after 27 years in the same organization. It was time for me to make a move for some new opportunities and challenges."
Hiring Click brings a wealth of firefighting experience to the district, which has 10 full-time firefighters and 76 volunteers, Baynes said. About 17,000 people live in the district's 320 square miles in southeast Benton County.
Click is the operations chief for an inter-agency fire team in the Northwest that responds to catastrophic events and large wildland fires across the country. There are 17 Type 1 teams nationwide.
"These teams went into the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina, all those kinds of things," Click said.
Click said heading up the Northwest team has taught him how to manage large and dangerous scenes. He honed his people skills and management style by leading the team, he said.
Baynes said Click's experience with the team gives him invaluable leadership and stress management skills that will be useful on large fires in the Mid-Columbia.
"That experience alone is something great," Baynes said. "That teaches you how to work with other people. There are people coming from all over on Type 1 teams."
Click has spent his first few months on the job reviewing policies, getting a better grip on administrative duties and getting familiar with his staff. He has had to set time aside to try go over city and state fire codes that he didn't encounter while working at Hanford.
Click wants to start looking at ways to improve the district for the future. He wants to expand the residency program that trains recruits, increase recruitment of firefighters and improve the program that uses bulldozers to help control fires.
"I am pretty excited about it all," Click said. "I have a lot of energy."
Baynes said the transition has been smooth because of the strong relationship he has with Click. He is confident Click will lead the district in the right direction and continue to foster relationships with every fire district and department in the Tri-Cities.
"You cannot do this type of work without trust," Baynes said. "I trust Lonnie."
-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Ty_richardson