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Fire chief bolts for Lewis County post

Bainbridge Island Fire Chief Jim Walkowski will soon be heading south for a new job leading an expanding fire authority in Lewis County.

“It’s very exciting,” Walkowski said Tuesday. “As a personal and professional opportunity, it’s something I couldn’t pass up.”

Walkowski was offered the job Friday to head Lewis County Fire Department 12, which is in the process of merging with the city of Centralia’s fire department.

“It’s not very common and other entities are going to be watching it closely to see how it goes,” he said. “It’s a hybrid approach that will be a real challenge. I’m going to see what can be done with the organizational structure so it can take off.”

Walkowski was born on Bainbridge Island and began his service in the department at 15 as a cadet. He rose through the ranks of the SeaTac and South Kitsap departments before assuming Bainbridge fire’s top position five years ago at the age of 32.

He was promoted to head of the department in an organizational shakeup two years ago. The fire board eliminated the position of executive director, making fire chief the department’s top post.

“Bainbridge has been absolutely awesome,” Walkowski said. “There is no other reason that I’m leaving other than the opportunities in Centralia.”

The move may also work in Walkowski’s wife’s favor, he said. She is eyeing new positions in the South Sound area with her current employer, the Association of Washington Cities.

Walkowski, who earns about $102,000 a year on Bainbridge, will likely take a small pay cut when he assumes his new post. But he will oversee a substantially larger department on the verge of growing even bigger.

The Lewis County department employs 29 career firefighters at eight stations in an area of more than 180 square miles. The island’s department, by comparison, employs 16 firefighters at three stations in an area of just 28 square miles.

“There is the potential for a pay cut – but it’s not about money,” he said. “It’s strictly about the professional opportunities I’ll have” in Lewis County.

Fire Commissioner Earl Johnson heaped praise on Walkowski, but said the parting will be bittersweet.

“Let me make this very clear: Jim Walkowski is a great young man and a fantastic leader,” Johnson said. “He has all the qualifications to reach any height he decides to go after. I’m excited for him.”

At the same time, Walkowski’s departure has “an opposite mirror effect” on the Bainbridge department. “We’ll really be losing something,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he and the other commissioners will meet Thursday to begin planning for Walkowski’s replacement. The commission will likely appoint an interim chief, but will take its time choosing a permanent successor.

“It’s not unrealistic to say, given the net we’re going to cast, that it may take three to six months,” he said.

Walkowski will continue to serve as chief until the end of the month.

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