“I am eager to get started,” newly-appointed city fire chief Mitch Burgin told the Times-News on Thursday.
City Manager Jeff Emory named Burgin on Thursday to replace outgoing Fire Chief Mike Lee.
Burgin served the last four years as assistant fire chief but has been with the city fire agency since he started his firefighting career 28 years ago.
“Burgin possesses the qualities necessary to lead the Lincolnton Fire Department,” Emory said.
The Lincolnton High School graduate looks forward to carrying on the tradition of leading a “top-notch” agency and “talented staff” in the town where he was raised and plans to work towards promoting professionalism among his team as well as exploring additional ways to be a more “cost-effective” department.
He told the Times-News he joined the department as a volunteer on his 18th birthday and became a full-time firefighter four years later.
Even before he was officially fighting fires and responding to other area emergencies, Burgin was a wide-eyed teen at similar scenes, helping his best friend John Barkely, who at the time, was a volunteer firefighter with Lincolnton.
“I was with him all of the time,” he said. “To be honest, I had no plans to join, but he gave me a volunteer application and told me to fill it out.”
Burgin helped fire crews in rolling out the large hoses, directing traffic and cleaning up the station after emergencies.
Barkely recently retired from the agency as a career member but still volunteers.
“We have worked together now for over 30 years,” Burgin said about his childhood friend. “I would not be in this business if not for him.”
Burgin was again promoted in 2004, taking on the role of captain, and three years into the new position, he became assistant fire chief, he said.
He remembers his first large-scale fire at now-defunct Parker Furniture on Court Square in 1982. He remembers the cold morning and fears that he and his fellow firefighters were going to develop frost bite. He also can’t forget how the water from their fire hoses turned solid on the ground.
A year later, he responded to a blaze that gutted an area school. His chief at the time, Don Wise, protected Burgin and the crew from a dangerous situation by ordering the men to stay away from the building.
“We didn’t know that the fire was above the ceiling,” Burgin said. “He made a good call that night.”
The seasoned firefighter also once led a local boy to safety by helping him down from a tree that stood nearly 70-feet in the air.
Of all the scares and memorable moments seared into Burgin’s mind over the years, his “closest call” occurred in 2006 at North Lincolnton Baptist Church on N. Flint Street, he said.
Using a thermal imaging camera, Burgin had to navigate his men through a sea of black smoke that covered the inside of the building from floor to ceiling. While at first, they thought the fire originated on their floor, they eventually realized the flames were burning below them in the basement and “fought through extreme heat and smoke conditions to extinguish” it.
“We were all extremely lucky we didn’t fall through the floor into the burning basement,” he said.
The Lincolnton incident now serves as an example for thermal imaging schools across the nation.
Firefighters may be co-workers, but they are also a family of like-minded heroes who have each other’s backs.
Specifically, after one man’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Burgin and the fire team shaved their heads to support her, he said.
He understands it takes a special person to serve the community and work with a fire agency, dispelling the idea that “just anybody” can suit up and tackle a blaze.
“You have to be willing to leave your family at a moment’s notice,” he said. “You have to be able to live with your family and your firefighting family. It’s not all fun and games; there is a lot of hard work, and most of it goes unnoticed. You train from the beginning of your career to the end of your career.”
While Burgin comes from a long line of public servants including police chiefs, detectives, private investigators, U.S. Marshals, and troopers, among other careers, he’s been the only family firefighter.
“I belong to a special brotherhood of men and women nationwide,” he said. “We are faced with an enemy (fire) that is somewhat unpredictable. It’s a ‘thinking man’s’ profession; you can’t accomplish the goal with just brute strength.”
Burgin also enjoys being viewed as a role model for children.
“I try to live accordingly,” he said.
Burgin and his high-school sweetheart, Lynne, reside in Pumpkin Center. They have two children, Matthew, 29, and Colby, 26, and have two grandchildren who are eight and nine months old.