Fire safety hero remembered: Saying goodbye to Mike Tong

CEDAR CITY – Friday evening, family, friends and community members are gathering in Cedar City to say goodbye to 37-year volunteer firefighter and community fire safety icon Mike Tong.

A quiet man with lots of heart, Tong leaves behind a gap in town that is a wide one, Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson said.

Tong’s death was sudden and left behind “an empty pair of bunkers at the station which cannot be filled,” according to a press release issued by the Cedar City Fire Department Tuesday.

“As a dedicated member of the Cedar City Fire Department for almost four decades, Mike is remembered as a great friend and mentor who always gave unselfishly of his time and money in support of the department,” Cedar City Fire Chief Mike Phillips said in the release. “Mike’s wit and wisdom will be sorely missed in the fire station and the community.”

The 61-year-old lifelong Cedar City resident died Monday at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, according to the Southern Utah Mortuary obituary written in honor of Tong’s life. Neither the obituary nor the Fire Department press release specified how Tong died.

A family man who fully embraced his role as a father, a grandfather and a companion, Tong “was a ‘go to’ man for information about anything,” the obituary said.

For years, one of the many roles Tong played in the community was to go around town and inspect fire extinguishers, helping maintain fire safety for the businesses in Cedar City.

Cedar City Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Tong, Cedar City, Utah | Courtesy of the Cedar City Fire Department, St. George News
Cedar City Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Tong, Cedar City, Utah | Courtesy of the Cedar City Fire Department, St. George News

“A number of the community members have worked with him and interacted with him as he would come and do his inspections,” Wilson said.

Tong was committed to his role as an inspector, former Cedar City fire chief Paul Irons said of his friend and 37-year colleague.

“That was his job, that was his personal business – fire extinguishers,” Irons said, explaining that when Tong retired from the U.S. Postal Service he started up the fire extinguisher business to fill a need in the community.

“The only people that were coming around (to provide this service) were just passing through, and they would go through the community and charge them just outrageous prices for doing stuff,” Irons said. “Mike had seen the need for that and so he started that business.”

That was just Tong’s way, Wilson said; like many other members of his family, he had been active in the stewardship of Cedar City for as long as she could remember.

“He will be deeply missed among our community, the staff – kind of across the board,” Wilson said.

Irons and Tong joined the Fire Department as volunteers at the same time on the “first Tuesday in April, 1978,” Irons said. As they continued with their firefighting careers, Irons moved up the ladder, eventually becoming fire chief, he said, and Tong maintained his devotion to the department as a volunteer – fulfilling his role as battalion chief and helping run the show whenever a fire broke out.

“The Fire Department has a pretty tight brotherhood, and he was the epitome of brotherhood,” Irons said.

Irons said Tong was an avid hunter and fisherman, and the two would take off on outdoor adventures often through the years – typically coming back with stories to tell after each outing.

Recalling one hunting trip during which Tong left for Boulder Mountain a couple of days ahead of him, Irons said, he arrived to an unexpected sight. Always cautious of black bears in the area, the two men would take whatever precautions they could to stay safe and avoid them, he said.

“I could pretty much count on any time he (Tong) went first, by the time I got over there, there would have been some event that had happened to him,” Irons said.

This time in particular, Irons said, he arrived to find Tong lying under a tree with a black dog he had never laid eyes on before. Afraid to even ask where the dog had come from, Irons said, he let his friend dive into the story of his newfound companion.

Irons said:

He was coming back to camp one night and it was late, dark, and we never went to the Boulders that we didn’t run into the bears. … There’s a fairly good population (of bears) over there, and when you’re out walking through the sticks, we’d always find a bear. … He made the last turn as he turned in front of his trailer, and he said, ‘This big, black, furry thing jumped up on the back of the bike.’

Tong knew right away that a bear had gotten him, Irons said, so he bailed off the four-wheeler he was riding, diving for safety; but when he turned around and looked, it was a big, black, furry dog instead of a bear.

The dog adopted Tong for a few days and rode around on the back of his four-wheeler with him until his owner was located, Irons said.

“The owners didn’t know what happened to him – he just disappeared on them,” Irons said. “(The dog) had seen the trailer and he knew there was people in it, so he just sat there and waited for somebody to come back to the trailer. It just happened to be Mike.”

For those wishing to pay their respects to Tongs and his family, there will be two viewings in Cedar City.

The first viewing takes place Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Greens Lake chapel, 1177 W. Greens Lake Drive in Cedar City. The second viewing will be held in the same location preceding funeral services on Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with a 1 p.m. service to follow.

All are open to the public.

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