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Commitment and character

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Shane Schmidt (left) of Alexandria, president of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association, presented Bill Thoennes with the association's Firefighter of the Year award during its annual conference on June 22. (Contributed photo)2 / 2

On May 28, 2012 an explosion ripped through the Verso Paper mill in Sartell, taking one life and injuring four others.

More than 5,000 tons of finished paper and work-in-process inventory caught on fire.

Within the first few hours of the fire, a statewide mutual aid fire plan was exhausted, so the task of coordinating additional help to put out the fire was assigned to the regional director for the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association for the Lake Region - Bill Thoennes of Alexandria.

Sitting more than 30 miles away at his office at the Alexandria Parks Department where he is the parks director for Alexandria, Thoennes worked relentlessly to get the manpower and equipment that was needed in Sartell.

"It was a lot of work for him to do it all. I think he was on the phone constantly for several days to coordinate it all," said Karin Andersson, a Kensington firefighter who was one of the volunteers at the fire.

With the help of willing and cooperative departments in the Lake Region, Thoennes was able to coordinate 57 departments with supply trucks and manpower, and within five days the fire was extinguished.

As Andersson sat down to e-mail her nomination for the Minnesota State Fire Department Association's (MSFDA) Firefighter of the Year, she thought of this incident.

"People need to be recognized for the good things they do and Bill was one of those people," she said. "I can't think of anyone else that deserves it more."

Because of the nomination and his stellar reputation and commitment, Thoennes received the Firefighter of the Year award on June 22 at the 138th MSFDA's conference in Bemidji.

"I was so shocked," he said. "There are 20,000 other firefighters in the state of Minnesota that do the same things as me every day and they are all too deserving."

Still, both Andersson and Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow agree that Thoennes has been a vital part of the firefighting community in the past few years, especially during the response to the Verso Paper mill fire.

"He goes above and beyond. That is really the most important thing to know about Bill," Andersson said.

While growing up in Parkers Prairie, Thoennes didn't have any real interest in becoming a firefighter, other than playing with his trucks. It wasn't until his neighbor asked him if he had any interest in joining the Alexandria volunteer firefighters that he gave it some real thought.

And ever since he joined, he's loved every minute of it.

"Going into a fire is such a rush," he said with excitement. "When I get out of a fire, I always look back and think of what could have happened."

And in this line of work, a lot of things could go wrong.

Several years ago, Thoennes was helping put a fire out at Koep's Korner when something unexpected happened.

Standing on the second floor of the building putting out hot spots, Thoennes and his fellow firefighters began to hear a creaking noise. Within seconds, the floor suddenly fell from under their feet.

In the moments that followed, Thoennes concentrated on helping his friend, who had blood covering his face, to get safely to the door before anything else fell.

"That was one of the close calls. I look back and say, 'Wow, I really should have never been up there,' " he recalled. "It just shows how this is a life-threatening job, but I have never regretted it."

When asked to narrow down exactly what he loves most about firefighting, he simply couldn't.

"I love the other guys and the other people, doing what we do and just helping the community and helping one another," he said. "We help in so many fashions, from public education to storm clean-up, firefighters are the first people they call."

Though he joined the fire department with an intention of being a volunteer firefighter, it has led to more than that.

"I realized that I wanted to help people. I already knew I was a people person and people call me a social butterfly, but I never realized how much I love just being able to be there for people in their time of need," he said.

With this newfound passion, Thoennes started working part time with North Ambulance as an EMT and has continued to do so for the past 17 years. He has also become more involved at the regional and state levels of firefighting. He's the regional director for the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and the vice president of the Lake Region Firefighters Association.

Even with his years of multifaceted dedication, he's still shocked about receiving the Firefighter of the Year award, but also incredibly thankful.

"There are so many other great men out there volunteering their time," he said. "I am just so thankful to Karin Andersson for nominating me, my family that has been so supportive and for all the firefighters in the state of Minnesota for what they do."

"I think it is a great sign of leadership to pass on credit to other people," Chief Karrow said. "Bill has put such a tremendous amount of time into this department, he is more than deserving and I am so glad that he received it."