The Campbell County Fire Department, led by newly named Fire Chief Jeff Bender, serves the Gillette, Rozet, and Wright areas. The department is made up of both career and part-time firefighters who do way more than simply put fires out. This is the final piece in a three-part series that follows these brave, local heroes.
Armed with 30 years of experience battling southern California blazes and mishaps, newly named Campbell County Fire Chief Jeff Bender brings a wealth of knowledge to his new position after joining the team this June.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bender began his career as a part-time firefighter at 18, and worked his way up from there, serving as fire chief for the City of Loma Linda, California, for the past 11 years before joining the Campbell County Fire Department (CCFD).
“Southern California is a good place to be in the fire service,” Bender said. “There are plenty of both man-made and natural disasters from the wildland seasons to flooding to earthquakes to the whole gamut of the disaster world.”
And he’s seen it all.
Bender was on the ground during the California wildfires of 2007 and 2013, an experience he’ll never forget. He recalled losing a thousand homes to the flames in the wake of a one fire that raged out of control.
“In those wildland situations, you are just desperately trying to draw a line and make a stand,” he said, describing the difficulty of trying to stop the quick spread of fires in the face of erratic winds and burning embers.
“I looked halfway down the next block to see another one or two roofs smoking, and with the heavy winds, it’s the sinking feeling that, oh no, another block,” he said, shaking his head. “The fire just kept crawling down into the city out of the hills.”
Bender said at that point all he could do was protect the nearest homes and continue battling the flames in the urban-wildland crossover area, only to do it all over again.
“There were times we actually took cover in partially burned structures while fire blew over us,” he recalled, “and at that point, you’re just in the heat of the battle and doing your duty and ensuring the safety of your crew.”
There were other times, he said, when he was completely surrounded on all sides by fire. This is just part of the job, he said. Now, he’s facing entirely new challenges in Campbell County.
His biggest obstacle is the vastness of the county. It’s his first time covering a 5,000-square mile terrain with a much smaller team and fewer resources than he had in California. That said, Bender noted that he couldn’t have a better crew and staff currently in place in a climate where a little goes a long way.
“That’s typical in the way the American fire service is today. There are so many things that have been tacked onto fire service – emergency medical response, hazardous materials, technical rescue,” he said. “Now, we’re dealing in kind of a new area of terrorism and active shooter response nationwide. The fire service has expanded its capabilities to answer those calls.”
Bender is happy in his new home in Campbell County. Along with heading up the department, he moved here to be closer to his family and raise his children in a better environment, specifically, a ranching culture, which is most important to the career fireman.
He described Gillette as being both a frontier and all-American. He was raised in a rural area of California, and to him, this city feels like home, complete with the same values.
“We chose a few years ago to raise our kids out of the city, so we bought a ranch in Montana,” Bender said and added that his family had previously relocated there while he remained in service in California. When he hit retirement age there, and with the opening of the position in Gillette, he saw an opportunity to bridge the distance gap and eliminate the travel required to keep his family connected while continuing his long-standing career.
Bender and his wife Kari have six children, four girls and two boys, spanning from age 7 to 20 years old. The couple met when he was a young firefighter-paramedic and his wife was an emergency room nurse. They have been married for 16 years.
“My wife is an amazing lady, certainly one the pillars of success for me,” Bender said, adding that he could not do this life without her. “She’s a wise lady, and I’m benefitted by that.”
In his free time, Bender most enjoys spending his time working on the ranch with his children, and also off-roading and motorcycle riding with the bunch.
Ultimately, he feels that firefighting, much like fatherhood, is a calling he feels compelled to serve.
“You must be willing to put other peoples’ interest in front of your own and come to duty when it’s not always convenient,” Bender said, and that “putting duty ahead of your own personal interests” is part of what makes a firefighter, a firefighter.