Ben Steketee has come a long way from the cities of his youth, but he is grateful to God that he ended up in Hillsboro.
He is marking 20 years as chief of a department he joined after being talked into it by a friend.
“I thought it sounded cool. It might be fun,” he said.
Back then, he didn’t know what to think of Hillsboro.
“I would walk past the bike racks at the local middle school, and all the bikes were lined up without a lock on one of them,” he said. “In California, if it’s not locked up, you are giving it away.”
It took a while to burn off some of his rough edges, but Steketee is glad he found his calling.
Becoming a trusted member of a community is one of the biggest rewards of his service.
“God delivered me here, and this is the result of 20 years as fire chief,” he said. “I love that my family and friends are able to witness that.”
Steketee credits any successes he enjoys to the 22 firefighters he serves with, especially his department’s officers.
Assistant fire chief Todd Helmer and captains Rusty Moss, Matt Hein, and Lloyd Spencer do a fantastic job as do lieutenants Lyle Isaac and Corey Unruh, he said.
“I’m just the lucky one that’s in this position,” he said.
He has fought many fires these past decades, but the battles that tested his leadership are ones he remembers.
A blaze that gutted Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church in 2004, early in his career as fire chief still haunts him.
“There were 10 fire departments here helping with that,” he said.
Newton’s fire chief also showed up to help, but the building still was lost.
“It was glaringly obvious that I needed more incident command training,” Steketee said. “So I made it my personal mission to get certified in incident command training.”
Steketee gave up a week’s vacation, took 40 hours of classes, and snagged a certificate.
Two years later, the Federal Emergency Management agency rolled out a new system, and he had to get certified again.
The experience taught him that nothing learned from an agency’s manual would ever be absolute.
“So many people get stuck on, ‘This is the way it has to be done. When many times it’s not,” he said. “You have to be flexible.”
The fire chief forged friendships during monthly training drills and has learned a lot from his fellow firefighters.
“Those are just fun times,” he said.
Steketee has six men interested in joining the department, a bit of good news that he has never seen in his years as chief.
Two prospects are almost ready for their membership to go to a vote.
“It’s a great problem to have,” he said.
He expects they will have plenty to do when wildfire season heats up. These past few years have been challenging.
“I can definitely say that wild land fires have increased in number and in intensity,” he said. “There are a lot of theories for why that is, but it’s really hard to explain.”
Steketee knows he is approaching retirement age, but he is not ready to leave until a new fire station is built. The project still is several years from completion.
“That’s one of my goals,” he said. “I want to see that to fruition before I think about retiring.”