Last week, Levelland Fire Chief Bill Durham submitted his resignation, effective April 4.
He will be making a career change as he will become the District Coordinator with the Texas Department of Emergency Management in mid-April and will have an office in Lubbock.
“It will allow me to spend more time at home,” he says of the career change. “I have listened to a pager for 27 years. I have missed a lot of meals. I have interrupted a lot of birthday parties. I am looking forward to enjoying my family more.”
Durham was born in Levelland in the old hospital that is now home to the Extension Service and Probation Department.
His mom was Valera Ryan Durham. His dad, Robert Durham, suffered a heart attack and died when Bill was five years old in 1974.
“Neal Ellis Pharmacy was across the street and Spencer Ellis Pharmacy was on the square,” he remembers about growing up in Levelland.
“I remember the grand opening of Cook Memorial (now Covenant Health) and Neal Ellis moving onto College Avenue,” he says.
A graduate of Levelland High School, he says he worked as a cowboy for two years, a job he truly loved, worked on a farm, in a welding supply and worked on a gang for Kelly Coppedge in Sundown. Six months on a shovel and pick convinced him he needed to go to college.
He earned a degree in welding and machining from South Plains College in 1989.
“There were five in my welding class. There are over 50 in the welding classes today,” he says.
He went to work for Tom Edwards and Big Bear. “I was awful independent,” he reflected.
He left them to go to welding with Allied Machine with Doug Bolden.
“I learned to be contrary working with Doug Bolden, Dennis Boggs, Max Poer and Gary Potter,” he says with a laugh.
In 1994, he saw a home fire and decided he needed to join the fire department, vowing to try it for six months.
That was 27 years ago. Thurman Davis was the chief and the volunteers included F.E. Shaheen and Leon Burton.
It was not the first time, however, that the fire department had played a role in his life.
He says that when his dad died, his uncles took care of him but he wasn’t doing very well until volunteer firemen make him their mascot.
He says his dad died in March and his mother had emergency surgery and nearly died in October, 1974.
“It was a pretty rough time for me but those old men, the volunteer fire department, took me in as a mascot. Those old men were tough but they took me in and took care of me,” he says proudly. Some of those firemen were
Marvin Brewer, Sr., Bill Worley, Raymon and Waymon Jackson, Sonny Bell and Wayne Northcutt.
“Those old men meant a lot to me at that time. They still do!” Durham says.
He says when he was in the first grade in West Elementary, there was a fire down the street from school so, during recess, “I hauled myself over there and sat on one of the fire trucks.”
After the fire, the firemen took him back to school and saved him from getting into trouble. “Those old firemen thought that it was cool that I cut out from school and saved me from getting into trouble with Mr. Albright. It didn’t save me from my mama,” he continued.
He also remembers the fire department selling light bulbs door-to-door to benefit a young lady who had been hospitalized with all the proceeds going to her family.
He says “Big Marvin” Brewer taught him “when to shut up and when to go forth.”
“He also taught me that just because it’s a bad day at the office, it is probably the worst day of somebody’s life if they’ve had a fire.”
“I love fighting fires; nobody likes going into a house fire and having fire roll over the top of you better than me. But I don’t want anything bad to happen to anybody,” he says.
As chief, he is usually on the sidelines, commanding his firemen and trying to keep them from harm’s way.
Durham says he was welding at Allied Machine in 1996 when “Big Marvin” asked him if he was interested in becoming a full time fireman. “I told him I couldn’t afford a put cut.”
In 1998, the bottom fell out of the oil market and the machine shop was slow. There was an opening for a dispatcher and Durham completely changed the course of his life in October, 1998.
“I went to dispatching and worked nights all the way through until I became assistant supervisor,” he says. He worked 12-hour shifts under Betty Davis and dispatched for eight years. He continued to work part time at the machine shop and at the fire station.
He says that Toney Cowan, who was the police chief, was good to work for.
In October, 2006, he became a firefighter and in 2008, he started his own business, Star Fire Safety Training, which he continued until he was made fire chief.
In August, 2010, he took over as assistant fire chief and says that 2010 and 2011 were the worse fire seasons in this part of Texas and his department worked hard through those years.
“I thought it can’t be no worse than 2010-11. Then we went through two floods and the Goliath snowstorm. I didn’t go home for three days during that storm,” he recalls.
“I went to the station Saturday morning after Christmas and didn’t get home until Monday night,” he says, recalling the efforts everyone made to help those stranded and those with medical emergencies.
Durham became fire chief in 2015 and says his goal was to be progressive and to get the department in compliance while helping the community. He brags on Fire Marshall Jay McKay and his efforts not only in investigating fires but in helping educate people on how to prevent fires.
The fire chief is proud of the equipment the city has purchased and the fire department building, which is a huge improvement over the old building.
As he looks to the future, he says the goal is to remain ISO compliant, not have as many pieces of equipment but to have equipment which is more versatile.
The department has identified that most structure fires are extinguished with less than 4,000 gallons of water so now they run two fire engines with a combined capacity of 4,000 gallons with two people operating the trucks and everyone else fighting the fire. The ladder truck runs third. If the fire can’t be extinguished with 4,000 gallons, the department lays lines to fire hydrants.
“This is working. This has helped our manpower and put more people on the scene,” Durham says.
He says the grass trucks have been outfitted with bumper nozzles so that it only takes two people per truck. The department has two primary grass trucks and a third that they hold in reserve.
Durham has lots of memories of the fires he has helped fight.
The biggest fire he remembers was in Cochran County on a Father’s Day that required help from every department in the area. He says the bakery fire on the square was a challenge with flames visible from the fire station. An arson fire in an old two-story garage on 13th and C was almost his undoing.
He says Bill Pharis rolled out of the station and staged the engine in the alley. Durham had started in with a hose when the power lines came down right on top of his hose line, burning his coat and lining and the hose line. A section of that line hangs on his office wall.
“I shouldn’t be here. I should have been dead that night,” he admits.
He had another brush with death at a trailer house fire on Highway 114 when he was between two houses, popped the door and the fire exploded, melting his face shield.
“They estimated the temperature was 400-500 degrees. I had never been through heat stroke,” he says, adding that he ended up at UMC. Released, he did not tell his wife or mother that he had been to the hospital but his mother say him being loaded onto a stretcher on TV.
A good memory is of taking his son, Landon, into his first house fire after he had joined the volunteer fire department.
He is proud of his department which includes seven full-time firefighters, two administrators and 19 volunteer firemen. It is the first time in years that the department has had that many volunteers.
Bill and his wife, Patricia, married on July 18, 2018. He has two sons, Landon, who is captain of Levelland’s Volunteer Fire Department and a Cochran County Sheriff’s Deputy, and Seth, an ag teacher at Idalou. Patricia has three kids, Lionel, Matthew and Aimee.
They also have four grandchildren, who he admits to spoiling. “They think I do no wrong and I am not correcting them,” he adds with a grin.
As he reflects on the past and looks to the future, he has great memories and stories and knows he has been blessed by working with some of the best.