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‘Fireman’s chief’: Colleagues remember Barnhardt as passionate firefighter, family man

KANNAPOLIS — On Mother’s Day in 1999, Rick Barnhardt knew exactly what to do.

Barnhardt, who retired this year as fire chief, was told there were four children trapped in the building. He and Tracy Winecoff, the current chief, breached the door and took off immediately up the stairs to the second floor with no air hose or backup to save the four children.

The kids had been locked inside, but they had escaped through a window. They were treated for smoke inhalation and they all survived. Winecoff, a young firefighter who had just joined the department, followed Barnhardt’s lead.

Barnhardt did not want recognition and accolades after the event. In typical fashion, Winecoff said, Barnhardt just wanted to do his job as a firefighter.

At the age of 50, Barnhardt, known fondly as a fireman’s chief, died unexpectedly Wednesday just months after retiring as Kannapolis fire chief on March 31. He was an avid hunter and was found collapsed by his family in the woods after making a trip to spread deer corn.

Winecoff said the department was floored when they heard the news because Barnhardt had always been healthy and in good shape.

The people who worked with Barnhardt, a 30-year veteran of the department, described him as a passionate firefighter father of four who always prioritized his family. During his years working with Barnhardt, Winecoff recalled always hearing his chief telling family members “I love you,” no matter the situation. It was never “talk to you later” or “goodbye.”

“Nothing took priority over his family,” Winecoff said.

Deputy Fire Chief Kirk Beard echoed Winecoff, saying Barnhardt was all about his family and his kids were his world.

Barnhardt worked his way up the ranks in the department starting at age 16 as a volunteer with Royal Oaks Fire Department. That department later became part of the city’s fire service and is now Kannapolis Station No 3. From 1992 to 1997, he worked for the Salisbury Fire Department until he was hired as one of the first paid, full-time firefighters for Kannapolis.

As a paid firefighter at Kannapolis, he rose to the ranks captain, battalion chief, division chief and, in 2019, fire chief.

In the department, Barnhardt was looked up to by everyone, said his former co-workers. Some looked at him as a father figure and others as a big brother.

Beard said Barnhardt would fight fires aggressively, but he always maintained a calm and collected demeanor when others may have been excited about a large blaze.

“Rick was always calm to a point where it was funny,” Beard said.

Division Chief Greg Summit said Barnhardt was an all-around good guy who never met someone he did not like or vice versa.

Winecoff said the department has reminisced during the past few days and recalled how all their families grew up and spent holidays together.

“We still feel like we’ve maintained that family atmosphere,” Winecoff said.

Winecoff took over as chief on April Fools Day. He said the service changes the department had to make due to the COVID-19 pandemic bothered Barnhardt as he prepared to retire. Besides Barnhardt’s preference to avoid public recognition, COVID-19 also made the department push back a retirement send-off for Barnhardt. A few weeks ago, former co-workers recalled, Barnhardt said he did not need that kind of recognition, but the department still wanted to give him one anyway.

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