Firefighters reflect on their work for International Firefighters’ Day
Few communities have such close relationships to firefighters like Rocky Mountain towns — where wildfires can rush upon front lawns with the speed of the wind, and homes line the boundary between forest and urban landscapes.
“Wildfire is really difficult to imagine before it happens,” Red White & Blue Fire District firefighter Caroline Wockner said.
Colorado officials expect June to feature “above-normal” levels for wildfires. The local teams responsible for handling that load — Summit Fire & EMS and the Breckenridge-based Red White & Blue Fire District — must also handle daily calls for medical assistance, hazardous material situations and standard house fires.
In honor of International Firefighters’ Day on May 4, a day meant to honor past and present firefighters, local firefighters spoke about their careers, what folks can do to make their lives easier and why they do what they do.
Being a firefighter in Summit County entails a lot more than it does elsewhere in the country, and Sage Miller, of Summit Fire and EMS, said their day-to-day duties are far from typical.
“The responses that we provide often involve the extreme topography of our district which includes inclement weather, high mountain passes and the constant challenge of being a healthy human at an elevation of 9,000 feet,” he said.
Summit County’s “austere environment,” as Red, White and Blue captain Jeff Nordeen put it, creates unique challenges. Red, White and Blue’s district extends up to the peaks of Breckenridge. It require aerial support or for crews to respond to fires on the backs of ATVs to reach remote scenes. Snow, too, can close mountain passes, limiting neighboring responders’ ability to give aid if all Summit County responders are occupied.
“It’s a lot different than being in a big metro area, where if things get busy, the whole system can pull in resources from nearby. We don’t really have that luxury,” Wockner said.
But that’s part of the job — and part of what drives some local firefighters.
“It’s the variety of challenges and things that you can learn,” Red, White and Blue Captain Jeff Nordeen said of his passion for his career in the mountains. “Most firefighters would rather cut off their fingers than sit at a desk.”
But, the 25-year veteran added, “The biggest thing is the relationships you build. You spend a third of your life with these people.”
Red, White and Blue is an eclectic group. All are career firefighters but many had unusual starts. Nordeen said he began his professional career as an English teacher, and he knows some business executives that were bored by the monotony of office work. Others, like Wockner, were out in the woods from the start.
“I started out on a trail crew,” she said, maintaining trails and working with her hands after college. “During that job, I learned how to use chainsaws and cut down trees, which was the most empowering thing I’ve learned as an adult.”
The 27-year-old considers her path to Breckenridge as “statistically unlikely.”
She went from trail work in California — moving dirt and cutting trees — to taming wildfires in Summit County.
Miller, a former ski patroller, said the seed for his passion was planted on the hill.
“I learned more about public safety and found my love for taking care of folks as a ski patroller,” he said. “Being able to respond to any emergency is an incredible honor.”
Firefighters always weigh that honor against the danger and strain of the job they do. While the job of putting out fires seems simple to understand, the threats can be existential and harder to manage than what meets the eye. Trauma is a real concern.
“For a little while, I would cringe every time the tones would go off, feeling like we were going to run on another dead person.” Summit Fire and EMS firefighter Justin Briggs said of his time at North-West Fire. “The one that sticks in my mind the most was a drug overdose that we saved. It was a mom who was clean from heroin but decided to use again. Her husband found her, and he had an infant and his dog in his bed with him. He was screaming hysterically during the whole scene.”
“Seeing the tremendous work put into fire prevention, inspection and public safety in response to historic, devastating events reminds me that this is a dangerous world to live in,” Miller said.
“I’ve seen just about everything you can see, and some of it sticks,” Nordeen said. “When I started in the fire service, there wasn’t a huge emphasis on your mental health…It is priority No. 1 for us now.”
After responding to a fire, employees at Red, White and Blue will debrief and have regular check-ins with peer support teams — a stark contrast from 25 years ago when Nordeen began. Back then he said the mantra was, “Shake it off, move on, shut up and keep up.”
Today, he said, things have changed. Red, White and Blue and Summit Fire have mental health professionals available. Firefighters at both agencies have received training as counselors, and Nordeen said one Red, White and Blue member is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling.
The biggest thing Summit County people can do to support their firefighters is stay educated, Nordeen said. This is not only paramount for residents, but visitors too, he said.
“If you’re coming to spend time vacationing here, please pay attention to the announcements, to the billboards, to the signs,” he said.
Coloradans can also check the state’s Wildfire Risk Public Viewer for comprehensive wildfire risk.
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