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042513 former PFD chief diesPedernales Fire Department is mourning the passing of former Fire Chief Ken Van Rens on April 21.

Van Rens suffered a stroke on April 11 while at home with Marlene, his wife of 43 years.

Pedernales Fire Department and Austin/Travis County EMS responded and he was taken by STARFlight to Seton Hospital. Exploratory emergency surgery followed which revealed a severe intracranial stroke that caused a massive hemorrhage and could not be repaired. He spent the next week in an induced coma in the intensive care unit until he was transported to hospice care where he later passed away.

Van Rens moved to Spicewood in 1978 from Wisconsin where he had worked as a motorcycle mechanic and as a guard in the Department of Corrections. His work as a corrections officer kindled his interest in fire service.

He was the health and safety officer at Texas Instruments in North Austin that was later purchased by Raytheon. He left that position after 20 years in 2000 to become the first full-time paid chief with the Pedernales Fire Department.

Van Rens joined Pedernales Volunteer Fire Department in 1984 as a volunteer firefighter. He served as the department training officer for a number of years before replacing Chief Don Lamb as the chief of Pedernales Emergency Services in 1995.

His tenure was marked with tremendous change and growth in the department, including upgrading the entire fleet with new engines, tenders, boat, and brush trucks; replacing Stations No. 1 and 2, and building Station No. 3; hiring the first paid staff; and obtaining an Advanced Life Support ambulance for Station No. 2.

As chief, he was instrumental for the response and recovery in the wake of the 1997 Pedernales Valley Tornado, an F5 tornado that destroyed 65 homes and killed one person.

Those efforts were severely hampered because communications where all but wiped out. The tornado was just minutes after those that hit Jarrell and Cedar Park so all cellular traffic circuits were overloaded and one of the first buildings destroyed was the Southwestern Bell switching station on Bee Creek Road, which wiped out all land-line communications. The department was still all-volunteer at the time and required around-the-clock shifts for two weeks.

Van Rens was with the department during the Christmas Flood of 1991 and again with the flood of 1997 – just three weeks after the tornado. Having gained invaluable experience working at Raytheon, Van Rens was also active in the Travis County Hazmat Team as a science officer.

On Labor Day 2011, Pedernales fought a 6,500 acre wildfire that took a week to contain and two weeks to extinguish destroying 68 structures in what has been called the Pedernales Fire.

Similar to the tornado before, resources were hard to come by as fires were already burning in Bastrop, Steiner Ranch and Cedar Park, but the department battled to save as much as possible all under the guided response of Van Rens who worked throughout the incident.

When he retired Aug. 24, 2012, Van Rens discussed his philosophy on fire service in an interview with the View.

“When I first started out 17 years ago as the chief, the position wasn’t as political as it is nowadays,” he stated. “But, you know, fire departments have developed. We are no longer volunteers – we are either combination or paid. The budgets have increased into millions of dollars. The job is more of a politician’s job and an administrative job than it really is leading troops in fires and things like that. That kind of took the fun out of it a little bit, but you’ve got to deal with it.”

Even though retired, Ken continued to support the community and the fire department recently serving as fry cook at the Pedernales Auxiliary Fish Fry on April 6. He even got to get his hand back in the game when a grease fire broke out, and he calmly strode into the building and grabbed a fire extinguisher. When asked if it was “just in case?” He grinned slightly and said “nope” and walked outside and extinguished the fire.

Van Rens’ easy-going attitude helped those around him keep their heads while everyone else was losing theirs.

The memorial service will be from 1-1:30 p.m. Friday at Cook-Walden Chapel of the Hills Funeral Home, 9700 Anderson Mill Road, in Austin. Following the service, family will receive friends and family to celebrate Van Rens’ life from 1:30-3 p.m.

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