Last year, islander Brett Kranjcevich passed the 40-year mile marker of his service as a volunteer firefighter, adding to the lore and legacy of his immediate and extended family, which has proudly served as a significant contingent of Vashon’s fire-fighting force throughout the years.
His late father, Milt Kranjcevich, served for 50 years as a volunteer firefighter on the island, reaching the rank of Captain of the Dockton Fire Station while also working the night shift at Boeing. His mother, Virginia Kranjcevich, served alongside her husband for 28 years, as a truck driver and pump operator, until her death at the age of 70 in 1995.
But wait, there’s more.
Through Brett’s siblings and spouses, and his wife Jona Kranjcevich and her family, the Henke’s, Brett’s family members have clocked more than 250 combined years of volunteer firefighting service.
His children, Chet and Abigail, have followed in the family tradition. As a teenager, Abigail served in the Explorer program that trains young firefighters, and Chet is now employed as a hotshot firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.
And yes, there’s even more.
Despite his long service, Brett is still only 56 years old, and calls the idea of retirement “uncharted territory.” He currently has the rank of Volunteer Assistant Chief with Vashon Island Fire and Rescue.
And in addition to being a volunteer, Brett has also been employed as a mechanic by the district since 1982. In 1987, he became VIFR’s head mechanic. The job became full-time 20 years ago.
While Brett keeps VIFR’s fleet running in his day job, he is also the sole volunteer firefighter at the Dockton Fire Station — the same place where his mother and father served.
Brett is a lifelong islander, the youngest of six siblings in his family, and lives in Dockton. As a third-generation resident of the neighborhood, he’s one of the few remaining descendants of a once-thriving community of Croatian immigrants that began to arrive in Dockton in the early decades of the 1900s to work in the shipbuilding and repair industry. Brett’s Croatian grandparents were part of that migration.
His childhood was centered around his family’s service to the fire district.
“As early as I can remember, my brother and I would always go to fire calls in the Dockton area on our bicycles and assist where we could,” Brett said.
He joined the fire department as a volunteer firefighter when he was 16, responding to calls from high school. At that time, he said, teenaged volunteers could perform all the functions of firefighters except drive the truck.
Growing up in a household of volunteer firefighters defined and shaped Brett’s life.
“There were a lot of broken meals,” he said. “Being awakened in the middle of the night by the Plectron (the paper system at the time). Knowing my family was serving the community with a needed service made it worth it.”
But Brett also found joy in being part of a tight-knit clan of firefighters.
“The volunteer force was a community unto itself and as a family, we were a part of that,” he said. “We would all gather after calls and decompress, and we would gather as a whole and share meals such as the annual Fireman’s Dinner Dance. That ‘service’ wasn’t really service at all, it was a part of me.”
When Brett was in his early twenties, he met Jona, who had joined VIFR as a volunteer and paid dispatcher. She too, came from a firefighting family — her mother, father, sister and brother also served in the district.
The couple’s youthful fire station romance has led to a rich and full family life.
“We fought fires together, we trained together,” Jona said. “We were able to be there, together, for friends and neighbors in their times of tragedy as well as in their times of joy.”
The couple’s two children were born into the fire department — as small children, they tagged along with their parents to sit in the car as they responded to calls.
“As they got older, they actually started helping with things they could help with,” Jona said.
Through the years, Brett’s heroics, as well as those of his colleagues, have made news several times.
In 1987, he was part of the firefighting force that fought the raging Wax Orchard warehouse fire that burned through the night and into the next day.
“After gaining access to the flaming inferno which was the warehouse, the heat was so intense that it melted the aluminum above our heads as well as parts of my helmet and fire gear,” Brett said.
More recently, in 2017, he was the first to arrive on a large house fire at Sandy Shores. When he pulled up, the entire front of the house was on fire.
“I proceed to knock the fire down, essentially putting it out, before the next units arrived,” he said.
For the past 20 years, Brett has also been mobilized, with other local firefighters, to fight wildland fires in the state as well as in California.
In 2015, The Beachcomber reported how Brett led a small team to save a large farm property filled with many animals from a raging wildfire near Chelan. The property and house Brett helped save belonged to the inlaws of a Vashon career firefighter.
Brett also remembers fighting the flames of the 2018 Cougar Creek Fire, near the town of Entiat, in 2018.
In all, he’s helped fight more than 50 forest fires in his years of service — work he said he has a passion for.
Fighting wildland fires is a very different beast from battling fires in structures, but Brett said he and others have trained and brought their wildfire fighting skills to a high level.
“We know what we’re doing now,” he said. “We try to do the best we can.”
Because of the pandemic, Brett and other Vashon firefighters missed out on fighting the giant wildfires of 2020. Orders by Fire Chief Charlie Krimmert prohibited local firefighters from joining those mobilizations, due to potential COVID exposure in the small department.
VIFR Assistant Chief Bob Larsen, who is also a lifelong islander who has known Brett for his entire life and worked with him for decades, said that Brett is the district’s go-to expert on wildland fires.
He summed up Brett’s approach to his work as a firefighter as one of “heartfelt dedication,” saying that Brett was motivated by true concern for the welfare of islanders.
And indeed, it’s that concern that came shining through as Brett summed up his encounters with so many islanders over the years, in some of their most tense, terrifying and heartbreaking moments.
“Whether it was due to the loss of property or worse, the loss of life — I, as well as my fellow firefighters and volunteers, will forever have the images and memories of these moments etched into our minds,” he said.