Former Niceville fire chief remembered for impact on fire service after battle with lung cancer

NICEVILLE — After several years battling cancer associated with his life-long passion of firefighting, Michael Wright, a former chief of two departments, died Aug. 17.

Wright, 65, devoted 42 years to the fire service. He came from a long line of firefighters and continued his family legacy as a fire chief for the Niceville Fire Department and East Niceville Fire District before retiring in 2021.

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Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright came from a long-line of firefighters. His father, Joseph Earl Wright, who is seen second from the right, served as a police officer and volunteer firefighter for Niceville in the late 1950s.
Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright came from a long-line of firefighters. His father, Joseph Earl Wright, who is seen second from the right, served as a police officer and volunteer firefighter for Niceville in the late 1950s.

“His dad and his grandad had both been firefighters, so it was kind of ingrained in him. It was just something that he loved. He loved the community," said Ken Miller, who served as Wright's assistant chief in the 1980s.

Wright was one of the youngest people to be appointed fire chief in Florida at the age of 27. He oversaw both Niceville departments at a time when they were solely volunteers, and he left an impact on the fire service that Miller said will not soon be forgotten.

“I just remember him always fighting for his guys,” Wright’s daughter Tiffany McCarty said. “He was not a politician at all, but he was all about whatever he could do that was best for his guys. From getting them pay, to getting them benefits, to getting them retirements.”

Lasting impact on the fire service

The East Niceville Fire District began as an all volunteer department in 1976.

Today, it is fully staffed with paid firefighters because of Wright’s leadership, according to David Birch, who took over as fire chief in March 2021 after working alongside Wright for 13 years.

"It was a very small beginning, but we are at where we are right now because of what he did," Birch said in an interview last year.

Wright was instrumental in creating a pension plan and getting pay, benefits and medical insurance for the East Niceville firefighters.

“He definitely was a champion for his firefighters in ensuring that they received adequate pay for the services they were providing," Miller said. "He was very instrumental in making sure those firefighters in East Niceville were compensated.”

He also laid the groundwork for the Niceville Fire Department to begin hiring paid firefighters. That department was founded in 1952. In 1986, Wright established a full-time, paid position for fire inspector to ensure that buildings within the city were meeting safety codes.

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Some of his other accomplishments were securing life-saving equipment such as air packs and the Jaws of Life, which are used to rescue victims of vehicle accidents, and bringing state fire training classes to Niceville and other parts of the Florida Panhandle.

Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright and one of his grandsons. Wright died Aug. 17 after many years battling lung cancer associated with his 42 years in the fire service.
Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright and one of his grandsons. Wright died Aug. 17 after many years battling lung cancer associated with his 42 years in the fire service.

Miller said Wright mentored hundreds of firefighters during his time as fire chief, some of whom are now employed in Ocean City, Wright and Fort Walton Beach.

“His big thing that he wanted all his guys to be able to do before he was retired was to own their own home, and they did it,” McCarty said. “That was a big thing for dad too. He was so proud that he was able to help his guys along the way and get them all in a home that they own.”

McCarty said Wright was just as dedicated to his three children. As a kid, she remembered him working three jobs to provide for his family. He would be volunteering with the fire department while also working for the city and moonlighting at a local movie theater.

“He was loving. We had a really close relationship,” she said. “He was a great dad and he did everything for his kids.”

Wright's cancer diagnosis

However, the decades he spent breathing in smoke and fumes eventually caught up with him. Wright was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018.

For a man that had backpacked 45 states and countries such as Ireland, Scotland, Norway and Holland, the diagnosis was devastating.

"He loved to travel. That was a big thing for him," Miller said. "He actually had a trip planned for Egypt to see the pyramids. Unfortunately, the cancer came back and cut that trip out."

His right lung had to be removed, followed by months of chemo therapy. But he was eventually well enough to return to work at East Niceville. Miller said his dedication to the fire service never wavered throughout their 40-year friendship.

“He would put an air pack on and go inside and fight fires just like anybody else if he had to," Miller said. "In volunteer departments, there’s a lot of times that he had to do that.”

But eventually it came time for him to retire. Two and a half years after he returned to East Niceville, he put aside his title as chief and took up the title of “Pawpaw” to his three grandsons.

“He was all about those grand babies,” McCarty said. “He was really close with his grandchildren.”

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Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright loved to travel and go backpacking across the country. Wright died Aug. 17 after many years battling lung cancer associated with his 42 years in the fire service.
Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright loved to travel and go backpacking across the country. Wright died Aug. 17 after many years battling lung cancer associated with his 42 years in the fire service.

It was just two months after his retirement that a new spot was found on his liver. The cancer had spread from his lungs, and the outlook wasn’t good this time around. Doctors initially gave Wright two to 10 months to live.

His second round of chemo therapy left him weak, but McCarty said he continued to seize opportunities to do the things he loved and spend time with his grandchildren and family in his last few months.

“Even though this last year was difficult for him, he still managed to get up into Tennessee and the Carolinas," Miller said. "He couldn’t hike like he used to, but he was able to get up into the mountains and enjoy the mountains for a few days.”

He planned trips with his family to some of his favorite spots in the Great Smokey Mountains, and even Disney World, before he came to live with McCarty while in hospice care.

Her home was then flooded with firemen like Miller who would stop by to visit and show their support.

“Once we decided that he needed to go on hospice, the parade in front of my house of all the firemen coming to see him and just fire trucks parked in front of my house, they’ve been really great,” McCarty said.

Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright hugs his three grandchildren. Wright died Aug. 17 after many years battling lung cancer associated with his 42 years in the fire service.
Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright hugs his three grandchildren. Wright died Aug. 17 after many years battling lung cancer associated with his 42 years in the fire service.

'He fought to the end'

Wright underwent various treatments, including radiation therapy and Y-90 radioembolization, a procedure that targets tumors with a high dose of radiation. In the end, it was complications from the cancer that killed him.

“When I got him home that Sunday, that’s when I started to mentally lose him. He was hallucinating, and it just was getting really bad,” McCarty said. “He wasn’t really cognitive with me anymore after that Sunday night.”

Wright died Aug. 17 surrounded by family and friends at a hospital in Pensacola.

“He had accepted the fact that it was inevitable, it was going to happen," Miller said. "A comment he made is he didn’t want to die alone. So I made him a promise, and I kept that promise that I’d be there with him. I was there with him and his wife at his passing.”

A fire truck procession is planned for Tuesday.

Fire engines will be lined up along John Sims Parkway at noon in front of Addie R. Lewis School in Valparaiso. The procession will end at the East Niceville Fire Station, followed by a private service for friends and family.

"I believe he’ll be remembered as an individual who had the calling and stepped up to ensure the citizens of Niceville and East Niceville were provided the best fire protection that he could provide," Miller said.

McCarty said her father was especially proud of his family legacy in the fire service, with his father serving as a police officer and volunteer firefighter for Niceville in the late 1950s. She believes Wright's impact in Niceville will carry on for years to come.

“He cared. He truly cared about the lives of his guys and he did everything he could for them,” she said. “He fought to the end. He was a fighter in all things. He was loved and he’s going to be missed.”

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Former Niceville Fire Chief Michael Wright dies after battling cancer