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Local firefighter support evident

Jane Stebbins

SUMMIT COUNTY – Local firefighters are shocked and dismayed by news a firefighter may have started the huge Rodeo fire in Arizona and that a U.S. Forest Service worker is charged with causing the Hayman fire, Colorado’s worst ever.

But that sobering news hasn’t deterred support for firefighters in Summit County, where today people are holding a fund raiser to help local fire departments and honoring firefighters in Frisco’s Fourth of July parade.

Employees at the Frisco Safeway were turning hot dogs on a grill and making root beer floats Wednesday to raise funds for the Copper Mountain and Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue teams. The idea for the fund raiser was initiated by store customers, said Sam DeFabbo, second assistant manager at the Frisco Safeway; employees quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

“We are just thinking of them,” DeFabbo said of the firefighters. “They need our help.”

In some ways, the moral support might be just as valuable as the monetary assistance.

Contract firefighter Leonard Gregg is accused of starting Arizona’s largest wildfire. The fire has burned almost a half-million acres, destroyed 400 homes, forced the evacuation of 30,000 residents and cost more than $32 million to combat.

Terry Barton, a U.S. Forest Service employee, is accused of starting the Hayman fire southwest of Denver, which has burned more than 130,000 acres.

Now, one of firefighters’ biggest worries is that the public might paint them with the same brush.

“It’s disappointing because we work so hard all the time to make sure people stay safe and their homes and lives are protected,” said Kim O’Brien, a firefighter with the Red, White and Blue department in Breckenridge. “It’s definitely a personal kick in the head to everybody.”

Phil McFall, a firefighter with the Copper Mountain Fire Department, agreed.

“It was unconscionable,” he said. “It was very disappointing. My biggest concern is that I don’t want the public looking at us, thinking we’re all like that.”

Theories abound as to why people who are paid to protect life and property would ever consider igniting a forest that is experiencing its worst drought in 25 years.

According to Tom McAdam of Phoenix Investigations, a fire investigations firm in Englewood, motivations for fire-setting vary.

“There’s arson for profit, arson for revenge or spite,” he said.

And then there are vanity fire-setters, people with the so-called “hero complex.”

“This is the person who says, “I’m having a bad day, my self-esteem is low; I’ll set this little fire, I’ll put it out and everyone will say what a wonderful person I am,” McAdam said. “That’s how Terry Barton strikes me.”

Several small fires have been set along Highway 285 in Jefferson County, he said. Most were set where they would be discovered quickly and where the threat of spreading is minimal. Authorities also have a suspect in a number of small fires that have been set in the Durango area since the Missionary Ridge fire started. That person, McAdam said, might be taking advantage of the notoriety of the situation.

“I think they both (Gregg and Barton) wanted to be heroes,” said the Red, White and Blue’s O’Brien. “And then the fires got way, way out of control. I’m sure both of them didn’t want it to get this far. I was horrified. They both know the wrath of fire. They know the power of fire. It blows my mind away. I can’t understand it. But they are everyday people with everyday problems. Firefighters are known for their honor, their valor and courage. But they’re people, too, and there are good ones and there are bad ones.”

Sympathy ends, however, when one of their own dies in a fire that was purposely set. Five firefighters from Oregon died in a car accident while en route to the Hayman fire last month, and another died this week in the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango.

“That’s where the anger comes in; the loss of life,” O’Brien said. “The loss of property is horrible, but life? There is no getting that back.”

“I think there’s some anger; I’m feeling some,” said McAdam, who is a 25-year veteran in the fire industry. “It takes a little bit of the wind out of your sails. I’m still a firefighter at heart; they’re all my friends. I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for people involved in this kind of thing. There’s no justification for anyone doing these things.”


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