For more than half a century, Gerald “Jerry” Sleater helped battle fires in Benton County Fire District 1.
Whether it was from a seat in a fire truck or behind a board table, Sleater left his mark on the 320-square-mile district that runs south of Kennewick and Richland.
The longest-serving member and current fire district commissioner died Wednesday. He was 86.
His firefighting career started in 1964 when a group of local firefighters came into Ray’s Grocery, the Richland store he had purchased from his father. At the time, he was looking for ways he could serve the community.
“They demanded that I come help them,” he told the Herald shortly after his 50th anniversary with the district. “I wasn’t going to say no. That’s how it was back then.”
He began volunteering at the station in the Richland Wye, which was the fourth station in the district, and eventually became the assistant chief at Station 3 and the acting chief in the ‘80s.
Injured while fighting a fire
An injury fighting a fire in an elevator in 1982 eventually ended his career on the front lines. A piece of metal he was hanging onto broke free and his leg slipped between the rungs — breaking his fall, but badly damaging his knee.
He wasn’t ready to leave the fire district though.
He ran for commissioner in 1990, a position he continued to hold until his death.
In his time on the board, he helped start a resident firefighter program and get two fire stations built. He told the Herald in 2014 that he was amazed by the growth in the district, which now includes six stations.
Even in recent years, he was active in the district’s attempt to start an ambulance service, and didn’t miss a commissioner meeting until recently, said Fire Chief Lonnie Click.
“He was extremely dedicated to the fire district,” he said. “He’s been a key player in the direction of this organization.”
Sleater also served on the Columbia Irrigation District board for 20 years.
He married Deloris shortly after graduating from Kennewick High School in 1950, and they ran Ray’s Grocery from 1962 to 1993. They had four children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Several people shared memories of Sleater on the fire district’s Facebook post, remembering him for his love of gardening and the help he offered people.