La Grande firefighter Emmitt Cornford is coming out of retirement — for the second time in four years.

Cornford has been appointed interim chief of the La Grande Fire Department. The firefighter, whose appointment took effect earlier this month, is filling the vacancy created when Les Thomas stepped down as fire chief. Thomas, whose resignation took effect July 5, had served as fire chief since June of 2018. He could not be reached for comment about why he resigned or his future plans by press time.

Cornford has more than three decades of service with the La Grande Fire Department. He retired in April of 2016 but was called back to duty about a year later when the department’s new fire chief resigned. Cornford then agreed to come out of retirement and served as interim fire chief for four months before Thomas was hired. Thomas came to Northeast Oregon from Texas, where he had been a firefighter for several decades.

Cornford was asked by La Grande City Manager Robert Strope to serve as interim chief when he learned Thomas was resigning.

“He did not hesitate (to say yes),” Strope said.

This did not surprise the city manager.

“Emmitt always has put the department first,” Strope said. “I am grateful that he is helping us out.”

Cornford, who has agreed to serve six months, said, “I have such fond memories of working at the fire station. I want to do what I can to help.”

Strope does not want to rush the hiring process for a new chief because the department’s firefighting staff is now down in numbers and he wants to concentrate on building it back up before launching a search for a new fire chief.

Strope said often when an interim takes charge of a department it goes into a holding pattern. This will not be the case with Cornford.

“He will step in without missing a beat,” Strope said. “The department will not hit the pause button until someone is hired. It will keep moving forward.”

This may be Cornford’s second stint as interim fire chief after retiring, but it is his third overall. He also served in this role from October of 2015 to March of 2016 after Bruce Weimer retired and the search for a successor took longer than expected. Weimer had served as chief for at least a decade.

Cornford, a graduate of Imbler High School, joined the La Grande Fire Department as a volunteer in November of 1980. Just half a year later, an opportunity arose for a staffed firefighter position, and Cornford was hired July 7, 1981, according to an April 2016 Observer article.

He was promoted to engineer Oct. 14, 1986, and moved up the ladder to become captain on July 13, 1982. He served in that position for more than 33 years until Strope appointed him interim chief Oct. 1, 2015, until a new chief came on board March 28, 2016.

The city manager feels fortunate to have someone with Cornford’s skills and experience to draw upon.

“He has tremendous people skills, is an outstanding leader and very respected. We are getting a supremely qualified individual to help out,” Strope said.

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