When Bouachao Xiong joined the Eau Claire Fire Department to become the nation’s first Hmong firefighter in 1991, it wasn’t the first time he had blazed a trail.
Learning all of the proper procedures for putting out fires and saving lives on emergency medical technician calls was a huge test, but the difficult path Xiong followed to get to that point helped prepare him for just about any challenge.
Xiong, 55, a firetruck driver and engineer who will retire after his shift today, began his journey to Station No. 8 at 3510 Starr Ave. as a teenager in Laos. The son of a well-known Hmong military commander who aided American troops during covert Laotian operations in the Vietnam War left his home in November 1978 in hopes of starting a new life in the United States.
The first steps of that treacherous path involved hiking for eight days through the jungle, all the while keeping a lookout for land mines and communist government soldiers, who likely would have shot Xiong and his two dozen fellow travelers on sight for trying to flee the country. Along the way, Xiong recalled seeing several other Hmong people who had met that fate, including a pair who appeared to be recent victims, and sneaking past a group of communist soldiers taking a break by a waterfall.
“It was scary,” he said during a recent interview at his home, with a roaring fire in the fireplace and an eclectic mix of classic Wisconsin decorations (mounted deer heads and family photos) and Asian artwork (carved water buffalo horns and colorful Chinese fans) on the walls.
When Xiong and his comrades reached the banks of the mighty Mekong River, he and his cousin were the only ones who didn’t have a flotation device to aid their nighttime crossing — the only time refugees could avoid being shot while attempting to reach safety in Thailand. Xiong and his cousin settled for pieces of bamboo bundled under each arm, and it took them an hour to swim across the Mekong.
At age 18 and after 13 months in refugee camps, Xiong was approved for resettlement in America. He arrived in San Francisco two days before Christmas in 1979 and later settled in Wheaton, Ill., before moving to Eau Claire in 1981. After initially focusing on learning the language of this strange new land, Xiong attended college for a few years before landing an internship with the Eau Claire Fire Department.
As an intern, he gained acclaim by putting together a translation booklet for Eau Claire firefighters to use when they answered emergency calls at Hmong households. The booklet, a collection of simple phrases in English and Hmong, eventually was shared with fire departments across Wisconsin. Xiong also distributed health information cards to local Hmong residents and provided translation services for firefighters while he took firefighting and EMT training.
After Xiong completed his training, the department hired him as a full-time firefighter in May 1991, when he was believed to be the first Hmong resident in the country to attain that status.
While he always took pride in that accomplishment, Xiong said it has been an honor just to be part of what he considers a noble and highly respected profession.
“I’m just proud to have been a firefighter in this country and for the citizens of Eau Claire,” said Xiong, who recently changed his first name from Chao to Bouachao to follow a Hmong tradition. “I’m a lucky man that I got to work in this profession, and I’m thankful the city gave me the chance.”
The feeling is mutual, said Eau Claire fire Chief Chris Bell, who has worked closely with Xiong at various stations over the past 26 years and credited Xiong with helping to educate city firefighters about Hmong culture.
In addition to sharing stories about how and why he and so many other Hmong refugees risked their lives to come to America, Xiong often would treat his fellow firefighters to Asian cooking when it was his turn to prepare a meal.
“He makes a great stir fry and egg rolls,” Bell said. “I always looked forward to working with him in part for that reason.”
Beyond that, Bell said Xiong, still the city’s only Hmong firefighter, although a few others have entered the profession elsewhere, earned the ultimate badge of respect by being accepted and treated as “one of the crew.”
“He’s seen it all and done it all, just like all of us,” Bell said.
Indeed, after responding to thousands of fire and EMT calls, Xiong said it’s difficult to rank the most memorable ones, although he mentioned fires at Banbury Place and seven buildings at once near Melby Street as among those that were particularly challenging.
Early in his career, Xiong conducted many fire safety presentations for Hmong students and elders, many of whom had no understanding of the need for smoke detectors, fire extinguishers or even a fire service — concepts that were foreign in the bamboo homes of the Hmong in Laos. He also explained that EMTs called to Hmong households would use modern medical methods to save people, even when those families were used to relying on shamanism and other traditional healing practices of Hmong culture.
Xiong recalled a sense of pride when Hmong students would smile and eagerly touch his equipment during school presentations.
“I liked the idea that I could be a role model for Hmong children,” said Xiong, whose late brother Joe Bee Xiong also made history by becoming the first Hmong resident elected to public office in the U.S. when he was elected to the Eau Claire City Council in 1996.
Both Xiong and Bell said they are hopeful other Hmong residents will follow in Xiong’s groundbreaking footsteps and pursue a career in the fire service.
“One thing I wish is we would have more interest in the Hmong community in joining the fire service so that his legacy doesn’t stop with him. It’s a great career,” Bell said. “Our goal is to be a good representative of the community we serve.”
While Xiong loves being a firefighter, he also described it as emotionally and physically taxing and said those factors played a role in his retirement decision. He doesn’t know where life’s path will lead him next other than to enjoy the five-bedroom house he built for his family on a 12-acre lot that’s part of a residential development he and Joe Bee created just west of Eau Claire.
“I’m just going to take a break for a while,” Xiong said.
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