Firefighters fight, joke, work together

Craig Fire/Rescue's crew members spend countless hours together, often in intense situations -- two things that forge a bond the 21 volunteers likely would not have if it weren't for the department.

"We're not best friends," Capt. Dennis Jones said. "We're family."

Being blood means bonding out of necessity and giving one another a hard time incessantly, Jones said. They may not invite one another over for dinner, but they grow close through their emergency obligations. So close, in fact, that Deputy Chief Bill Johnston and Capt. K.C. Hume speak identically from time to time.

"We're brothers and sisters," the two said simultaneously.

Maybe it's the nearly 300 response calls a year, or the average 150 hours -- more than four times the number required for retirement -- each firefighter spends training each year that build these relationships.

Craig Fire/Rescue crews get paid on a per-call basis and cover a 180-square-mile area, spanning from Western Knolls to Routt County and from 15 miles north of Craig past Hamilton. They go far past those boundaries for calls that require their assistance, such as vehicle extrication and medical emergencies, and bill the person or property owner they assist.

The Artesia Fire Protection District, a volunteer crew, supports the Dinosaur area. Fire Chief Bob Ormsbee said his biggest challenge is keeping volunteers on the force. People move away often, and they can be hard to replace, he said.

The Bureau of Land Management team faces similar struggles with seasonal workers. The crew covers fire emergencies in a large area.

"We respond wherever we're needed basically," said Lynn Barclay, BLM fire mitigation education specialist and type 1 information officer. "We plug into the fire management team locally, regionally and nationally."

BLM employs about 20 permanent employees and many more seasonal firefighters. The crews work with county emergency managers and local fire departments on wildfire calls.

"Sometimes they're the first responders on a fire scene until we get there," Barclay said.

Hot Shots is a BLM 20-member firefighting crew, which works May to October.

"We're very interested in developing local firefighters, but you also need a certain ratio of experienced firefighters to the new ones," she said. "(Hot Shots) work on local projects if they're not out on a national assignment."

Another BLM firefighting team is the Yampa Valley Crew, a part-time agency. The firefighters have regular jobs and are called together as they are needed.

Other BLM employees also assist with fire duties as needed, which Barclay said helps the program run smoothly and efficiently.

"Serving the public and meeting our fire management goals is always done with safety in mind," Barclay said.

Five Craig Fire/Rescue firefighters also make up half of the Moffat County Hazardous Materials Response Team, which covers Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties, an 11,000-square-mile area.

"We mitigate the emergency," said Johnston, who is the team's chief. "Whatever the problem is, we just stop it. We minimize damage to life and property."

It cost $600,000, mostly from grants, to get the team up and running six years ago. The expenses covered equipment, training and materials. The team is now the designated emergency response authority for Moffat County and the city of Craig.

They spend an average of eight hours and $8,000 on each call they go on.

"The owner of the product reimburses whoever goes," Johnston said.

He and Jones most recall a Haz-Mat situation that involved a propane tanker and sport utility vehicle wreck near Maybell.

"When you talk about calls, that's No. 1 on my list," Jones said.

Thirty-foot flames blazed out of the back of the tanker, where a valve was leaking. Johnston said he loves calls like that because he can employ his problem-solving skills.

"We had five plans," he said. "Four failed, and the fifth one worked."

Firefighters and Haz-Mat technicians say one of the best parts of their jobs is serving the town in which they live and work. That's second only to the adrenaline rush, of course.

"I think we all started to do it to help the community and give back a little," Chief Chris Nichols said.

Johnston said that's why he signed up to fight fires two decades ago.

"Showing up on probably the worst day of someone's life and making a difference," is his motivation, he said.

The firefighters have witnessed their fair share of gory and trauma.

"We see the things people aren't supposed to," Jones said.

His fellow officers cannot help but agree. Johnston recalls responding to a situation where a kid had a telephone pole stuck through him.

And he'll never forget picking up body parts along U.S. Highway 40 after a motorcyclist hit a deer, which was dragged by a car for 100 yards.

"Most people have a call that sticks with them," Nichols said. "You don't know what will trigger it."

These calls still haunt the firefighters, and some need therapy to work through some of the shock. That's why the crews have a psychotherapist on call for a critical incident stress debriefing if they need it.

"We see some of humanity's most devastating points in their lives," Nichols said, "and we all have our own way of dealing with them."

The hardest part, he said, is satisfying all his responsibilities. The balancing act between his family, career and the department is what keeps him on his toes. The firefighters have a lot of weight on their shoulders.

"If you look around on a response area, there is nobody else," Johnston said. "We are alone. There's no backup. That's what makes me more proud of a small department like ours."

But their humility keeps them grounded.

"What we do is dangerous, but we take calculated risks," Nichols said.

Jones said fighting fires is just a job to him. It's a job he loves, but still, it's a paycheck.

"We do not consider ourselves as heroes," Johnston said. "We do not see ourselves that way."

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