By Richard Walker
Former Journal editor from 1991 – 2011
San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs described San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler, who died on Jan. 28, as “a kind, gentle, giant of a man with a huge heart and a great sense of humor.”
A testament to that statement, as well as his abilities as an administrator, will long stand: The merger of the Friday Harbor and San Juan Island fire departments.
Few issues on the island have garnered the resistance that the merger of the departments did. Both departments enjoyed political support and esprit de corps, as they should. But merging made sense — for efficiency, for consistency in equipment and training, and for firefighter recruiting — and Marler, who became chief in 2007, moving here from Sonoma, Calif. knew that.
It was a complicated issue: Friday Harbor’s fire department was supported by sales tax revenue; San Juan Island’s fire department is supported by a property tax levy. With his knowledge and experience, he guided the development of an agreement by which the Town of Friday Harbor contracts with San Juan Island Fire Department — legally, it’s San Juan County Fire Protection District 3 — for fire safety services. The town pays for those contracted services using funds it has always used — sales tax revenue. It’s a testament to Marler’s easygoing manner, diplomacy and professionalism that the town council and the fire district board were able to come to agreement on the contract.
At the time, the town fire department was caught in a perfect storm of resignations and lack of firefighters. We don’t exaggerate when we say Marler’s leadership saved fire protection service in Friday Harbor.
During his tenure as fire chief, he looked for innovative ways to improve firefighter training, improve fire protection, and expand participation in the Firewise program (39 neighborhoods on San Juan Island have been certified as Firewise) — all of this led to safer neighborhoods and lower property insurance rates. He nurtured a collaborative relationship between his department and other public safety agencies on San Juan.
At Cape San Juan, where he lived and served on the Cape San Juan Homeowners Association board of directors, he is being remembered as “a special guy” and “one of a kind.” Indeed he was.
Chief Marler will be missed by many. The island was changed in a positive way during his time with us.