Retired South King Fire and Rescue Chief Bud Thorson, an instrumental force in the creation of the fire department, died at age 93 on Friday, Jan. 13.
Bud Thorson was known to be approachable and humble, and despite creating a career of accomplishments, he never bragged, said his son Capt. Tom Thorson of South King Fire and Rescue (SKFR). In any of the professional or civic organizations Bud Thorson was involved in, he centered on the people.
“He always put people first, and the project or the program comes second,” Tom Thorson said. “Looking back, you realize he really cared for people … put them first and his own needs second. He always had time for people.”
Bud Thorson was born in Centerville, South Dakota, on July 16, 1929. He moved to Seattle when he was 7. He served in the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft mechanic stationed in Germany, participating in the Berlin Airlift, according to South King Fire and Rescue (SKFR). Before joining the fire service, Thorson drove a delivery truck and was a meat cutter for his brother’s grocery store in Angle Lake.
Thorson married the love of his life, Joan A. Koppenheffer, in 1954. The next year, he started as a volunteer for the fire department — then known as King County Fire Protection District Number 39.
Working his way up, Thorson was promoted to volunteer chief in 1962 and became a career fire chief in 1966, according to SKFR.
He shepherded the department into a combination of career and volunteer firefighters, garnered funding to build more stations and eventually created a career department, Tom Thorson said. During his tenure, Chief Thorson was instrumental in merging Fire District 39 with District 22 in 1967, District 32 in 1972, and District 30 in 1980.
“Chief Thorson was a true visionary and left behind a legacy,” the department wrote in a Jan. 18 post announcing Thorson’s death. “Yes, he is why we exist today as South King Fire and Rescue.”
“He was really proud of that,” Tom Thorson said of the merger.
During his time, Thorson served in the community’s top leadership roles including president of Volunteer Firefighter Associations, president of the Chamber of Commerce, president of Rotary, president of the King County Chiefs Association, president of the Washington State Chiefs Association and the chairman of Washington State Training Officers.
He also played a vital role in the design, development, funding and construction of the Washington State Fire Training Center in North Bend.
“To have that vision and push it through the the legislative process to get the funding … that was quite forward thinking for when that happened,” Tom Thorson said.
Other noteworthy accomplishments include implementing the South King County Medic One program, starting with four medic units covering what is now Zone 1. As a part of this program, he worked with King County EMS to allow firefighters to be trained as defibrillator technicians, which was the first in Washington state. Thorson also partnered with the U.S. Secret Service as the emergency services coordinator for a U.S. presidential visit to the area. He retired from the Federal Way Fire Department in January 1990.
In his personal life, Thorson and his wife had four children, eight grandkids and six great-grandkids. He enjoyed coaching baseball for his kids’ teams in the early years.
In his retirement, Thorson enjoyed salmon fishing at Westport, camping with his wife and art painting. He also took up woodworking with a special talent for making pen and pencil sets, cutting boards, bowls, desks, tables, chairs and other exotic wood items, Tom Thorson said. He even renovated all of the wood surfaces at Charlie’s Cafe, his favorite restaurant in Enumclaw.
From a volunteer to a fire chief, and participating in as many organizations as Bud Thorson did, you touch a lot of lives, Tom Thorson said.
“The amount of people he had an impact on … It’s got to be in the hundreds of thousands,” Tom Thorson said.
Bud Thorson’s memorial is at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Federal Way Community Center (876 S. 333rd St. in Federal Way). In lieu of flowers, the Thorson family asks those who knew Bud to please consider donating to either the South King Fire & Rescue Aid Fund or the South King Fire & Rescue Firefighter Foundation.