The longest serving auxiliary firefighter with Nelson Fire Rescue has been named Citizen of the Year by the Nelson Knights of Columbus.
Peter Defeo, 56, was born and raised in Nelson. He joined the fire department in 1976 — the same year as now Fire Chief Simon Grypma. Unlike many auxiliary members, Defeo didn’t look at his position as a step towards becoming a career firefighter. He signed up because he wanted to gain some skills and contribute to his community, and 38 years later that’s what he continues to do.
“There’re always courses to take and something new to learn, which keeps it interesting,” Defeo said. “The way we fight fires has changed a lot over the years, as technology and different protocols are developed.”
Having been with the fire department for so many years, Defeo has come to be part of the history of the place. His younger colleagues like to joke that he’s been there since the fire cart was pulled by horses.
“I tell them, ‘no, I started two weeks after the horses left,’” he laughs.
Like all auxiliary members, Defeo attends weekly fire practice and when there’s a serious fire in town he’ll respond alongside the career staff to knock it down. Typically auxiliary firefighters get called to two to five fires per year.
Defeo also participates in fundraisers and community events as a member of the fire department. You can see him in uniform collecting donations at annual boot drives, ticket raffles and the rooftop campout; or volunteering at Santa on Baker or fire truck show and shines.
Defeo considers his commitment to community service to be “just what you do when you live in small community,” and so he was genuinely shocked to be named Citizen of the Year.
“I thought it was a prank call at first,” he said of the phone call he received from the Knights of Columbus informing him of their decision. “I’m still questioning the sanity of their decision.”
Defeo was nominated by John Riesterer, a longtime friend and former local firefighter. Riesterer said he put Defeo’s name forward because, “I cannot think of anyone who does more in the community than he does.”
Defeo has worked his entire career at Zellstoff Celgar pulp mill in Castlegar as a safety coordinator. He’s also been a part-time paramedic with the B.C. Ambulance Service in Nelson since 1992. When he’s not busy with other commitments, he’s usually on-call and ready to jump in an ambulance if an emergency happens.
And he’s part of the Nelson City Band, which is how he met Mary, his wife of 26 years. He’s a tuba player and she plays the trombone. Together they attend weekly band practise to prepare for performances at Canada Day and Remembrance Day, as well as Spring and Christmas concerts.
They have two children — Frankie, 23 and Conner, 20 — who both still live with them in Fairview and have adopted their parents’ sense of community pride.
“There’s rarely a night in our household that somebody doesn’t have to run off to some meeting or event with the various clubs and organizations we’re all a part of,” Defeo said. “That’s just the normal state for us.”
Anyone who knows Defeo will tell you that he’s the type of guy who’s always willing help with anything, whether it’s chaperoning a school trip or moving something with his pickup truck.
“To me, being part of a community means helping people out,” he said. “If there’s something I’m able to do, of course I’m going to do it. That’s how I’ve always been. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to me.”
The Knights of Columbus will host a formal banquet to honour Peter Defeo on April 26 at 6 p.m. at the Catholic Community Centre (523 Mill Street). Tickets are $30, available at Baker Street Menswear.