Putting out the flame

Craig fire chief retires

Roy Mason can remember a string of missed birthday parties, wasted Christmas days and forgone Thanksgiving dinners-- an inopportune part of the job that comes with being on call for emergencies for the past 21 years.

A Craig firefighter since 1983 and fire chief of Craig Fire and Rescue for the past six years, Mason said leaving the force -- as he will when he officially retires in a couple of weeks -- is a bittersweet ordeal.

Raised an only child, the longtime fire official will miss his "family" but not the stress of a job where people's lives are on the line and funding is scarce.

Indeed, when Mason started this year as chief, he didn't fathom retiring. The issue became a point of contention with his wife, Randi, when Mason insisted he would stay on after his 50th birthday Sept. 22. At 50, firefighters who have put in 20 years of service can pull retirement benefits, though the benefits aren't usually enough to live on. But, after losing money and shutting down his business, Moffat County Lumber, recently, and taking up temporary work as a driver with UPS, Mason found the workload too much.

"I look back at what John Elway did, and I know it's time to quit when it's not fun anymore," Mason said. "The stress of everything was really starting to hurt my health and taking its toll."

A lot has transpired in 21 years at the Craig Fire Department. Mason recalls his first call as a rookie of two days with the department. Without training and little direction, he reached the scene of an apartment fire wondering whether he had put his fire protection suit on accurately. When told to start water sending through the hose, Mason fumbled with the levers until "thankfully, another firefighter showed up," he said.

Today, rookies must train with the department for a year to pass a series of state-certified tests and be hired before becoming a firefighter.

But Mason progressed up the ranks from the early days and surfaced as a leader who cared about his crew, said Bill Johnston, assistant fire chief.

"His philosophy has always been to talk to everybody and formulate a plan," he said. "He wouldn't just implement a policy without knowing how everybody felt about it."

As the highest-ranking official on the scene of a fire or sometimes an accident, Mason ultimately was responsible for the lives of his crew members. As a thoughtful leader, Johnston held little reservation that Mason potentially had saved lives other than the victims they were out to save.

"His job is to watch the entire scene and lead the crew into a burning building if he has to," Johnston said. "If the roof looks like it's going to explode or a tanker fire looks dangerous, he has to make that call. Has he ever saved my life? Probably."

Ten years ago, the department's budget was $200,000 more than it is today, board member Bryon Willems said. Willems also has been with the department for 21 years, starting six months before Mason.

Though some department officials say their gear is up to date compared to more urban departments, Willems said a lack of funds makes buying a badly needed tanker truck and paying the salary of a full-time chief unlikely. Craig Fire administration officials and the chief position are paid an hourly wage for the time spent responding to calls.

With only one water tanker truck and a large area to cover, department officials like to keep their truck available for tax-paying residents, though a call may come in outside of the district. It's one conundrum in a series of political issues that makes Willems not envious of the top position, he said.

"It's a tough road to hoe," he said of the job. "The headaches are ungodly. There's not enough kudos in life to make it worth it."

Willems said that second in command Chris Nichols is the acting chief and that the board plans to decide on a permanent replacement within the next two months.

In that time, Mason said he would try to readjust to life without the department. Though he has to turn in his pager soon, he'll still listen to the scanner that has bolted him upright out of bed or away from work more times than he can count during the past two decades. During his years as chief, Mason is most proud that his crew always has returned from catastrophe alive.

"My emotions through the past 20 years have been everything you can think of," Mason said of his experiences ranging from accident scenes that never escape his head to an overwhelming defeat on a mill levy increase that went to the voters a couple of years ago.

Mason's most proud of the relationships developed during the years with firefighters that he's been with through "hell and back."

"I've been successful in that I've sent firefighters back home to their wives," he said.

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