Local Obituaries

William Powell, longtime firefighter innovated Sacramento department as fire chief, dies at 91

Former Sacramento fire chief Bill Powell, who modernized the department during his 13-year stint as chief, died in his Arden Arcade home May 20. He was 91.
Former Sacramento fire chief Bill Powell, who modernized the department during his 13-year stint as chief, died in his Arden Arcade home May 20. He was 91. Family photo

William R. Powell, who helped to innovate and modernize the Sacramento Fire Department during his 13-year tenure as chief, died May 20 at his Arden Arcade home. He was 91.

Powell created the organization’s first hazmat and swift-water rescue teams, bought three fire trucks with ladders reaching 150 feet and started hiring female firefighters – all well before most other fire departments in the state did.

“That’s the way he was,” longtime friend Jan Dunbar said. “He was very, very forward thinking.”

Dunbar, also a former Sacramento fire chief, became friends with Powell in 1965, when he joined the fire department.

When Powell needed someone to spearhead the hazmat team, he picked Dunbar, and the two worked together to create the first team of its kind for the city. The team was so successful, Sacramento County wanted to take part in it, Dunbar said.

So, a contract was formed, and Dunbar got to work developing a second hazmat team.

Powell also worked with the firefighters’ union and city officials to give pay raises to personnel who worked on the specialty team, Dunbar said. Additionally, he encouraged firefighters to get their associate’s degrees with pay incentives.

Powell was first hired as a firefighter in 1960. Before becoming fire chief in 1973, he served as fire engineer, captain, battalion chief, fire marshal and deputy chief, according to The Sacramento Bee’s archives.

Powell, who was born and raised in Sacramento, also served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War, according to lifelong friend Ken Brown. Powell, who was born and raised in Sacramento, had two older brothers who also served in the Navy before joining SFD.

Brown – who was fire chief of the Rio Linda-Elverta Fire Protection District before it joined the Sacramento Metropolitian Fire Department – said he fittingly met Powell at a fire scene. Powell had come out to help Brown with a lumber fire at 6 a.m. and sent Brown’s men home.

“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Brown said, remembering his friend of 40 years.

After the others left, they sat and talked for while, quickly becoming friends. Brown said Powell was like a dad to him since he was about 10 years older – Brown cherished their relationship.

“He’s probably one of the greatest friends I ever had,” Brown said.

Powell’s wife, Helen, whom he married just days after retiring, described her husband as “big as life.”

“I don’t mean to make him out as a God,” she said. “But he was one of the most remarkable people I ever knew.”

Helen recalled his fascination with cars, fixing and repairing them, and his dedication to the fire department even after he retired.

“He had a social life,” she said. “But, it was always connected to the fire department.”

Brown, who now lives in Nevada, said he visited frequently with Powell over the last year as his health began to decline and was with him and Powell’s family when he died. He remarked it was difficult “losing one of the closest friends you’ve had in your life.”

Helen Powell said her husband’s death was “devastating” even though he’d been sick for a while. “He was the light of my life.”

In addition to his wife, Helen, Powell is survived his stepdaughter Zsi Widman, four step-grandchildren and two step-great grandchildren.

He will be buried at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, Widman said. A memorial service is planned for the Fireman’s Museum through Pioneer Mutual in West Sacramento, but a date has not been set.

Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.