A ride-along with Big Sky Fire Chief William Farhat
Story and photos by Matthew Hodgson EBS Editorial Assistant
BIG SKY – Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat has been fighting fires for nearly 30 years in four different states, and in Big Sky since 2011, when he took the position as department fire chief.
During my half-day ride-along with Farhat on July 6, the department responded to a small oven fire and experienced an engine error in one of the fire trucks, which necessitated readying the recently acquired new fire truck for action.
When one of the station’s three fire trucks experienced an engine problem, Farhat decided that the new fire truck, a $715,000 piece of equipment delivered in June and funded by resort tax appropriations, would take its place until the other was repaired. For the first time, the new fire truck was prepared for usage and filled with firefighting equipment.
The new fire truck took 18 months to obtain, a long process of debate and design, Farhat said. It has many features new to the Big Sky Fire Department like flow meters, cold weather protection, more hose, and increased storage space.
After lunch, Farhat gave me a tour of the fire district to provide a sense of how large and challenging it is geographically.
Established in 1979, the Big Sky fire district stretches from the Karst community in Gallatin Canyon south to the Rainbow Ranch Lodge area; and from Gallatin River to the far western end of Moonlight Basin. While only officially responsible for these 80 square miles, the department responds within a 200 square mile range.
Farhat began his firefighting career in Buchanan, Michigan, in 1989. He worked for the local Bertrand Township Fire Department for five years before pursuing an interest in paramedicine, the highest level of out-of-hospital medicine performed by non-physicians. In 1992, after receiving his paramedic certification from Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he got a job as a paramedic in Denver.
“Working for Denver was a great experience, but I soon realized I didn’t want to just be in the ambulance,” he said. Always curious about law enforcement, Farhat decided to go to a police academy in the Denver suburbs.
While working as a police officer in the small mountain community of Minturn, Colorado, Farhat continued to work as a volunteer firefighter for the Minturn Fire and Police Department.
When Farhat’s first child was born in 1997, he and his family returned to Farhat’s home state of Michigan where he took a job as a public safety officer, a position that utilized skills he had gained from his experience as a police officer, firefighter and paramedic. Three years later, Farhat returned to police work as a deputy sheriff in St. Joseph, Michigan. At the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, Farhat was trained as a fire investigator, a hazardous materials technician, and a Weapons of Mass Destruction regional responder for the state of Michigan.
During his time as deputy sheriff, Farhat continued working as a public safety officer and simultaneously held the position of battalion chief for the Chikaming Township fire departments in Harbert, Michigan.
Deciding he wanted to turn his professional focus back to firefighting, in 2006, Farhat was selected to be assistant chief of the University of Notre Dame Fire Department in Indiana for his diverse background in public safety. The following year, Farhat was promoted to chief.
“Notre Dame is a really different world. You have a lot of kids living on campus, so lots of threats there,” Farhat said. “After three years I really wanted to get back to the mountains, get back to a smaller community, more my pace.”
While looking for a new place to work and call home, Farhat came across the fire chief opening in Big Sky. Although he’d never been to Montana, he’d had a love for the mountains since he was a young adult. He applied for the position and got it.
Since he came on in 2011, the Big Sky Fire Department has expanded from 10 to 24 fulltime employees, and Farhat hopes to use the $1.5 million mill levy to create, equip, and maintain 11 new positions in the department between 2018 and 2021.
In the next 7 to 10 years, Farhat hopes that the Big Sky Fire Department will have additional stations in Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club.
“It’s been a great evolution,” he said. “We’re trying to catch up with the growth of Big Sky … and hopefully we’ll be ahead, but Big Sky keeps growing.”
The Big Sky Fire Department currently operates through two fire stations. The primary station was built in 1986 and is located at the corner of Aspen Leaf Drive and Rainbow Trout Run. Another station, built in 1994, is located on Lone Mountain Trail just west of the entrance to Big Sky Resort. The former is in Gallatin County, while the smaller, secondary station is in Madison County. Having a fire district that straddles two counties often means navigating political and governmental differences.
The Big Sky Fire Department reported a 60 percent jump in the number of calls received since 2013, attributed to increased visitation. Farhat explained that the mill levy will enable the Big Sky Fire Department to keep seven to nine firefighters in both stations 24 hours a day, allowing
the department to respond from both stations in an emergency.
“There’s a lot going on, a lot of challenges with development,” Farhat said. But it keeps him interested, he said, and he’ll continue to do his best to keep up with the increased demand on department resources.
The next public meeting of the Big Sky Fire District board meeting will take place at 8:30 p.m. on July 25 in the Big Sky Water and Sewer District building.