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Spokane Valley fire commission race features candidates experienced in fire, elected office

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio

The people served by the Spokane Valley Fire Department have an interesting group of candidates to choose from in the August 1 primary election. They’ll start the process of filling a vacancy on the department’s board of commissioners.

Among the three are two elected officials and two who are retired firefighters.

One is Diana Wilhite, Spokane Valley’s former mayor and city council member.

“I served on the Spokane Valley Fire District’s Civil Service Commission and got to know something about the running of the fire department," she said.

She later applied for a vacant position on the fire commission and was passed over. Now she’s running for a seat.

“I think what I did on city council is a perfect fit for the fire commissioners’ board because what they do is do policy, financial planning and then they pick the fire chief and that’s what I did when I was on the city council," Wilhite said.

She has at least two priorities she’ll work on if elected.

“Well, the EMT calls have tripled and so that is a concern is how we can meet the needs of the community with regard to that. Also, teaching the public how to prevent fires is good," she said.

Prevention is also the priority for Rick Freier, a Spokane Valley firefighter for 24 years who recently retired for medical reasons. Now he has a clean bill of health and is ready to continue his service in a different capacity.

“I really want to take my passion for prevention and apply that to this commissioner’s position. And when I say this it’s not just trying to keep the people of the valley safe from fire and falls, but it also helps protect firefighters because this job is incredibly hard on one’s body," he said.

While working for the department, Freier became known as the “Fire Science Guy” and created a series of videos you can still find on YouTube. In one, he stands in a fire station parking lot to talk about a recent fire call.

“Here’s what I want you to understand. If you have a fireplace and you use that fireplace and you want to dispose of those ashes, you need to do it properly. What does that mean? That means that the ashes go in a non-combustible container, aka metal can and they go outside and they sit there and you make sure they’re good and cold before they go anywhere else," he said.

“My primary job for 11 years in the department was fire investigation, so digging through and asking critical questions," Freier said during a later interview.

If elected, he hopes to continue asking critical questions and bring his perspective as a firefighter.

The third candidate in the race, George Orr, is also a retired Spokane Valley firefighter. During his 34 years, he also served two terms as a Democratic state representative in the early 1990s and says that perspective would be valuable to the fire commission.

“I learned you’re not going to get everything you want and you have to learn to compromise and nobody’s a bad guy in reality. You might not agree with them but they don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to go pick a fight with George.’ They say, ‘I’m going to do what my people need,’” he said.

Orr says he’s especially proud of writing and shepherding a bill called the Wildfire Mobilization Act, which allows local fire districts to request help from the state if they need it. It’s still a practice that’s used today.

Orr served on the Central Valley School Board for six years in the 1980s and says he made it a practice to spend a lot of time in the district’s schools. He says he would use the same strategy as a fire commissioner.

“We had a chief one time that said he didn’t want the fire commissioners to go to the fire stations, so they didn’t. And that’s kind of a slap in the face for your employees and nobody realizes you’re offending those guys. When you don’t come to the fire station, we think you don’t love us. That’s not the way to deal with people," he said.

Valley voters will send the top two vote getters from the trio of George Orr, Diana Wilhite and Rick Freier to the November general election.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.