Who We Are: Between Summit and the smoke
summit daily news
FRISCO – It’s only June and already Summit County is facing some of the driest conditions on record. The red flag warnings come almost daily and the local fire danger rating has been raised to extreme.
But as a community on the edge of a beetle-killed forest holds its breath, the man who would lead the charge against a wildfire says he’s not worried.
“It’s not scary,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino said. “It’s what we do. … We’ve got a good group. They’re well trained and organized. The politicians have given us the tools and the money to fight a fire and we’re going to go after it.”
East Coast born and raised, Jeff Berino landed in Summit County just after college, like so many others, to do some “ski bumming.” It was 1980 when he accepted a side job as a volunteer firefighter with what was then the Frisco Fire Department.
Over the last 32 years he has worked his way up to become a deputy fire chief, fire investigator and federal Type 3 incident commander – a post that would put him at the helm of any moderate-complexity fire on federal land in northwest Colorado.
Over the years, he’s seen his share of disasters.
Berino was one of the firefighters dispatched to help fight the Yellowstone fire of 1988, a historic blaze that ultimately grew to 2.5 million acres – approximately 20 times the size of Colorado’s 2002 Hayman fire.
“That still is the biggest fire I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was daunting. With today’s safety requirements, we would not be asking people to do what we were asked to do. We were pulling up to 300-foot walls of flame and trying to put it out, which was a joke.”
At the time, Berino was in charge of five units. Despite the danger, he was able to stand by the fire service mantra: everyone goes home. He has never lost anyone, firefighter or civilian, in that or any other fire in his career.
Still, with all the dry grass and dead trees in Summit County to occupy his time, it’s the thing he does worry about.
“I hope I never have to see that,” he said. “That’s my worst nightmare. … Sometimes it keeps me up late at night.”
Those who know him aren’t surprised; saying a focus on safety is a hallmark of Berino’s leadership.
“The fires I’ve been around with chief Berino in charge, he’s always emphasized a strong safety message,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said. “So the guys know as soon as they hit the ground, that’s their highest priority.”
These days, it’s Berino’s hope that safety is everyone’s highest priority. While he’s not worried about his team’s ability to fight a wildfire, he says they do rely on the community to help prevent one.
“We’ve just got to watch each other’s backs,” he said. “What I’m telling people is, we can’t be everywhere at once so we need the public to do their part.”
Jeff Berino wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of fighting fires.
He got his degree in business management at North Adams State College and though he worked as a firefighter over the summers, he initially had his sights set on ski area management.
But he admits he wasn’t in a hurry.
“After college I took six months off and bummed around Europe,” he remembers.
It was an Outward Bound class, the leader of which was now-Senator Mark Udall, that got him hooked on Colorado.
By 1979, he had moved his bumming to Copper Mountain, where he met his future wife, Janice.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
“Initially, she said I was a jerk,” Berino said. “But I think I wore her down. We’ve been married 27 years.”
Berino worked as a volunteer firefighter in Frisco for four years before taking a paid position. The chief, who today carries a radio and a cellphone with him on the weekends, remembers sirens and pagers once being his first source of notification.
In 32 years, as Berino has continued to climb the ladder through the fire department, he’s watched the standards for firefighters have climbed as well.
“The stakes are higher now,” he said. “The bar keeps getting raised as there are more and more regulations imposed upon us. (In 1980), you didn’t have to know anything. They just said, ‘Here, go find something that fits you and when the horn goes off jump on the engine.'”
Unlike many young firefighters, Berino was never tempted away from Summit County to faster-paced fire departments in bigger cities, but he did eventually go back to school and get a second degree from Colorado Mountain College in fire science.
He also continued to earn certifications and work his way through trainings to become an all hazards incident commander, which puts him in charge of handling more than just fire-related disasters.
In 2008, he was called to Alamosa after the town’s water source was contaminated with salmonella, a crisis he says was like “building an airplane in the sky.”
“There’s no rule book on how to deal with salmonella,” he said. “We had to invent a management strategy.”
Today, Berino has two kids, Jay and Janya, in college and hobbies outside the fire service. He says he has officially retired from running ultra-marathons – 100-mile courses – but still pursues another interest: investigating the origins of fires. The later has become a second job that takes him all over the country.
“It’s fascinating to watch how that process works and to try to find out what caused the fire,” he said. “If finding the cause helps prevent another fire, that’s the intrinsic reward.”
Sitting in the Frisco firehouse, where he has, at some point, been the resident of every office on the first floor, Berino looks younger than his 54 years, smiles easily and jokes often.
His colleagues say, even when he takes charge, that doesn’t change.
“The cool thing is this is chief Berino,” Lipsher said. “He is the same guy even when things are going crazy, he maintains a sense of humor.”
But Berino says that’s just part of being a leader.
“If the guy or gal at the top loses it, the whole incident’s going to come crashing down and implode,” he said. “You’ve got to keep a cool head.”
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