Chief Jimmy Chew’s greatest contributions haven’t just been serving Stepheville for 45 years

Fire Chief Jimmy Chew directs the scene at the Landmark apartments fire in 2006. The fire is believed to be the largest fire ever in the city of Stephenville. NEWS & SPORTS – FREE & LOCAL

The Flash Today

STEPHENVILLE (December 8, 2015) — It’s hard to wonder if the “S” stands for “Stephenville” or “Superman” on Fire Chief Jimmy Chew’s helmet.

After all, this is a man who once created his own weather and ice dome – while “burning” down houses faster than the Chicago Fire – and saving numerous lives at the same time.

To explain…

Chief Chew, with 45 years of employment with Stephenville, is not easily described in a couple of opening sentences because there is a whole lot more to his story that stretches across the state.

From a humble beginning on a three-month temporary hire, Chief Chew has worked his way up to becoming one of the most respected firefighters in the state. His peers gave him their nod of respect with his recent election as President of the Texas Fire Chief’s Association.

There has been a ton of work and sweat getting to the top of his profession, and it all started at the bottom of the fire ladder – below the first rung.

Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew started as a temporary three-month hire and has spent 45 years a Stephenville fireman.
Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew started as a temporary three-month hire and has spent 45 years a Stephenville fireman.

“Training back then was on the job and I started my very first day,” Chief Chew said. “Olan Cameron, who we called Slick, was my training officer and he took me to the park. I would unload hose, charge it and get water out of it. Then I would drain the hose and put it back on the truck, and we would drive a block and do it all over again.”

It was a good thing Chew started bright and early because that first afternoon he fought his first fire with the same hose he’d trained with that morning. With his training officer at the wheel, Chew was on the truck with the hose, facing danger and running on adrenaline.

“I was hooked. I just loved it!” Chief Chew recalled.

Firefighting was a big change from working with his father, Bill, at Bill’s Lawnmower shop, where he filled in when dad’s business started ramping up. It was long-time firefighter and later Erath County Fire Marshal Kenneth Hailey who nudged Chew into a new career when he introduced the young man to Emer Ferguson.

Ferguson served as the fire marshal who, back in the 1970s, was also head of the fire department, and “getting on” at the fire department was no easy feat with only five paid positions available. Chew got his chance when another firefighter, Charlie Williams, went on a three-month leave that turned into six months. When Williams didn’t return, the young firefighter filling in for him seemed like the automatic choice based on his talent and growing experience, and Chief Chew was on his way.

Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew's photo from the Texas Fire Chief's Association where he serves as president.
Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew’s photo from the Texas Fire Chief’s Association where he serves as president.

Gaining experience is something Chew never shied away from and when new regulations required firemen to become certified, he didn’t hesitate to head to “rookie school” despite his three years’ experience.

“We were given a choice to acquire certification or we could stay as we were,” Chief Chew said. “However, if you didn’t get certified, then you could never advance or be promoted. I wanted to advance.”

Through the years those advancements have come and Chief Chew’s education and experience have continued to grow as well. Now, instead of the student, he is generally the one teaching. Chew has even been called by the state to help investigate other major fires as part of an investigative team.

When Chief Chew leaves Stephenville he becomes a State of Texas asset and is paid through the forest service. That’s a benefit for Stephenville because much of the work he has performed is unique and he comes back to the city’s department with new and enhanced training.

In 2011, every last bit of Chief Chew’s experience went into fighting the massive Possum Kingdom Lake fire that burned more than 148,000 acres in Stephens, Young and Palo Pinto counties.

When he first arrived on the scene at PK, the commander there was very blunt and asked him whether his offer to help was serious. Chief Chew said it was, perhaps with a little bit of a shiver when he was told, “You are being sent into hell.”

He was assigned to what was known as PK East (the fire was actually four fires that converged into one) and was faced with major decisions every ten minutes – none bigger than pulling firefighters from a peninsula area.

“This was a one-lane road going on and off the island,” Chief Chew said. “If we put firefighters out there and the weather changed they would have been trapped. It was the toughest decision I have ever had to make.”



Tough because there were 139 homes on the peninsula and with no firefighting they faced destruction. Because of some of his decisions, Chief Chew has been introduced at firefighting events as the man who “burned down homes faster in three hours than the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.”

Chew doesn’t regret the decision a second, as not a single life was lost under his command over the two weeks and 11,000 acres he was responsible for containing. It was part of a fire line that stretched 270 miles and against a blaze capable of creating its own weather and an ice dome.

“Our weather guy warned us about the conditions and then we got a call that an ice dome had formed,” Chief Chew said. “We were told that if we had any kind of change in the wind to evacuate because it could collapse instantly.”

It was a once-in-a-life experience, or so everyone thought. But the blaze kept forming its own weather pattern and a second ice dome appeared with its own set of hazards. It was a unique situation with roaring fire all around and the threat of an ice dome forming from the water coming from firefighters’ hoses.

It was another unique situation that led to Chief Chew helping save numerous lives without donning a helmet or climbing into a firetruck. Instead it came as part of an investigative team that completely changed the way fires are approached in Texas.

Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew also serves at the President of the Texas Fire Chief's Association. He was part of a team that reviewed and made recommendations that brought about state-wide changes in firefighting tactics. Photo by Chuck Elliott
Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew also serves at the President of the Texas Fire Chief’s Association. He was part of a team that reviewed and made recommendations that brought about state-wide changes in firefighting tactics. Photo by Chuck Elliott

Many readers will remember the fire and explosion in West, Texas, that killed numerous firefighters who were unaware the fire they were fighting was a hazmat situation and not a normal structure fire. The resulting explosion killed 15 people, including 10 firefighters.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office contacted the Texas Fire Chiefs Association and Chief Chew, along with fellow chiefs Steve Bass (Grapevine), Brian Crawford (Plano), Danny Kistner (McKinney) and Les Stephens (San Marcos) were given the task of reviewing the operations and tactics used and to provide recommendations.

“The day before that accident, 85-90 percent of the fire crews in Texas would have approached that blaze in the same way as the crews in West,” Chief Chew said. “The day after it was totally different and we all take another approach now.”

The month-long investigation brought about huge changes in firefighting and the documentation of ammonium nitrate facilities in the state. It also meant sitting down with families and friends of fire departments from West and Abbott and explaining to those families and departments what went wrong; to a volunteer chief just how his son died and what mistakes lead to his death.

“If there is something I am most proud of in my career, it is changing how we fight fires in Texas,” Chief Chew said. “The fire and explosion in West and the resulting investigation led to us visiting 67 storage facilities in Texas. We’ve made those facilities and the fire departments that protect them more safe.”

Now fire departments are tasked with mapping and documenting hazmat facilities so crews have the information directly on hand or immediately available via a computer and dispatcher.

Mapping buildings and evacuation plans were something Chief Chew already knew a good deal about from his experiences in Stephenville. In 2006, the Landmark Apartments burned to the ground and he was the first firefighter on the scene.

“That is believed to be the largest fire in the history of Stephenville. We spent the first 20 minutes evacuating people,” Chief Chew said. “The building did not have firewalls and the fire quickly spread through the attic.”

It took more than two days to extinguish the flames and we brought mutual aid from as far away as Granbury.

Chief Chew has seen many changes in 45 years of firefighting and often gets kidded or questioned regarding his potential retirement. For those questions he has a simple answer.

“I have always loved the fire service, and I still love it today,” Chief Chew concluded. “I guess my answer is, I’ll retire when I stop loving the job.”


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