New Ill. fire chief faced largest fire in 25-year career
Rock Falls interim Fire Chief New Ken Wolf III led 25 agencies from four counties during the tire shop fire
By Alexa Zoellner
ROCK FALLS, Ill. — Less than three weeks into Ken Wolf III’s time as acting Rock Falls fire chief, he found himself leading the biggest firefighting operation of his 25-year career.
“It was the most challenging scene that I’ve been a part of,” said Wolf, who led more than 25 agencies from four counties in combating the Jan. 16 fire at the Moore Tires shop on the outskirts of Rock Falls.
The fire, which began about 4:25 a.m. Tuesday and kept crews at the scene throughout the afternoon, affected 90% of the 70,000-square-foot building. No one was injured.
“The fire itself was large enough and required a lot of apparatuses to get it under control, but the weather on top of it just amplified the issue,” Wolf said. “The water we needed to put this out was freezing at the trucks.”
When the fire started, the temperature was 4 degrees below zero with a wind chill minus 20 to minus 25, and it was even colder by 9 a.m., according to the National Weather Service. The temperature never rose above 1 degree that day, and wind chills remained around minus 25.
Despite the difficulties, the Moore Tires fire was educational, the soon-to-be chief said.
“All the help, all the support — a lot of it is just a phone call or radio away,” said Wolf, who officially will take over as Rock Falls fire chief on Feb. 1 . “The fire departments, the local businesses, everybody just pitched in and helped in a time of need. That was a very humbling experience, realizing the scale that [fire] got to, and we had all the help we needed if we just asked.”
The Rock Falls City Council on Jan. 2 appointed Wolf to succeed Chief Cris Bouwens as head of the Rock Falls Fire Department. Wolf is serving as acting chief through January while Bouwens uses his remaining vacation days.
The assistance of the Dixon Rural and Dixon fire department chiefs at the Moore Tires fire incident command post also was invaluable, Wolf said. It was because of their help that he was able to keep things organized, which itself was a learning experience — something he loves about being a firefighter.
“You share the duties and responsibilities with other officers to make the unmanageable manageable,” Wolf said.
Wolf said he has his fingers crossed that the Moore Tires fire will be the largest one he’ll ever deal with, but he isn’t placing any bets.
“You never can tell what’s going to happen,” he said.
Wolf joined the Rock Falls Fire Department in 1998. Before that, he worked as a certified nurse’s aide and at a steel mill. He was promoted to captain in 2013 and then to deputy chief in 2021.
“I’ve always loved the department, and I wanted to help see it grow,” Wolf said, noting that becoming chief was a natural career progression. “The leadership positions opened up, and I pursued them.”
His goals as fire chief include expanding the department’s community education programs and continuing to work toward building a joint training facility with the Sterling Fire Department.
The department regularly conducts programming for Rock Falls schools, but Wolf said he wants to offer more courses for adults, including fall prevention and fire safety — especially in larger apartment complexes.
“I enjoy being able to help people,” Wolf said. “It’s something different all the time. It’s not a mundane, monotonous job. ... It’s a very fulfilling and rewarding career.”
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