New La Grande Fire Chief Les Thomas said his interest in pursuing a career helping others stemmed from tragedy.

Thomas, who is from Texas, said when he was 13 years old, he was at school playing outside when his friends pointed out there was a big fire in the area. That fire happened to be his childhood home.

“We lost everything,” Thomas said. “There was absolutely nothing from that house that was salvageable.”

Thomas said the outpouring from his community was heartwarming. People gave the family items to get started again.

A second tragedy pushed him toward his career in helping people even more. When Thomas was in high school, his girlfriend was killed in a car accident. She died because medical personnel was unable to extract her from the crushed car.

In response, the community gathered together and purchased a tool commonly referred to as the “jaws of life” for the fire department.

Experiencing compassion and generosity after these tragedies led Thomas to eventually pursue a job helping others.

“It pushed me forward,” he said. “I went through fire school and was hired six weeks after graduating.”

He’s been working in Texas fire departments since then. He’s served in his former department, in Webster, Texas, in Special Operations, Training and EMS. He’s also worked as a Rescue Training Instructor for Texas A&M University Engineering Extension Service where he traveled and trained many fire service and industrial organizations, according to a press release from the City of La Grande.

Thomas said goodbye to Texas about three weeks ago and stepped into the role of La Grande fire chief, which has been vacant officially for about a year.

The fire department has had an interim chief during that period of time, and now Thomas is excited to transition into his new role.

See complete story in Friday's Observer