Moving into fire season

  Barbara Lawlor, Nederland.  Three weeks ago, Nederland Fire Protection District firefighters went through their wildland fire packs, replaced the power bars and cleaned out the water bottles, a house-cleaning chore that is usually done at the end of April, not the end of February.

In the past few weeks there have been three significant wildfires down below, including one at the bottom of Sunshine Canyon, which officials say was caused by transient campers. Not much has changed with camping rules and regulations since last summer’s Cold Springs fire. Boulder County Fire and Emergency agencies are aware of how rapidly an abandoned campfire can blow up. They answer every campfire report, every smoke sighting and check the campsites on a regular basis, but as long as people are present in our forests, the danger of a disastrous accident exists.

Chief Dirr says part of the preparation in dealing with emergency situations is making sure that his district has trained EMT’s and paramedics to treat victims and patients, saving lives, as first responders. He is proud to announce that two career firefighters have completed their paramedic training in the past year. Constant training and gaining background and depth makes for the high quality medical treatment that Chief Dirr strides for.

Ryan Roberts and Charlie Schmidtmann both graduated from paramedic school after many years of being a NFPD EMT.

Newcomer Andrew Joslin began his trek into the world of moving up in his training and education and passed his Firefighter I certification. Joslin moved to Nederland in 2015 from North Carolina and, wanting to learn about the local people and community, he signed up with the district.

Andrew works at home in the computer business and says he has always regretted not joining the military service, not entering into public service. He says living in Nederland opened his eyes to what being a part of the community meant. He liked the togetherness of the fire department family.

When he saw the ‘volunteers wanted’ sign at the fire station he met with Chief Dirr and decided to join the volunteers.

“Many people don’t know what joining the department means and they don’t know the problems that we are all facing. I haven’t had this much material to learn since college. I have been training since October but I know I won’t be done. I want to be a career member.”

Joslin says that in the past year, he has gained more experience than most firefighters have in a lifetime. He worked the Cold Springs Fire, on the structure protection crew who extinguished the spot fires that blew in on the wind. He says he knows his work made an impact. He responded to 49 smoke reports in July.

Since Joslin joined the district, he has received hazmat training, ice rescue training, and is beginning Emergency Medical Response training. At the end of the year awards banquet, Joslin was named the Rookie of the Year. “This is my new life now,” he says.

“On the first night of the Cold Springs Fire, I knew that being there justified everything I had been doing. I slept on people’s furniture that was in the front yard and watched the sun come up over Sugarloaf and the neighborhood looked like devastation scenes from world War I. By the time the fire was over, I knew that I had not been protecting just one house, but protecting the entire community.”

Training new members and escalating the training of long-time members is an on-going goal for Dirr. He says having three fulltime paramedics has been seven years in the making, a big accomplishment. Although the training has been economically expensive, grant funding has helped accomplish the goals.

Chief Dirr explained that an EMT spends 150 hours training and a paramedic puts in 1,500 hours to become certified. He compares the difference to a regular car and a race car. The paramedic is the next level of performance. “A few of the procedures and medicines are the same, but a paramedic has a vaster background and a greater depth of knowledge. The paramedics have the highest level of care except for flight nurses. They also have the level of knowledge and understanding that enables them to make clinical judgements. Dirr feels confident that the district now has the medical staff needed to handle any kind of first responder emergencies.

Next on the list of how to prepare for an early fire season is the reassuring fact that an air tanker is now parked at the Jefferson County Airport and will be there all spring. This tanker was used on March 10, in Idaho Springs. “We usually don’t have this kind of fire weather forecasts in the spring,” says Dirr. “But we knew the conditions were right to see one.”

Dirr says he personally is doing what all mountain residents should be doing: raking the dead pine needles, which he usually doesn’t do until June; and removing the firewood from his deck.

He said the fire season has become a conundrum; we are not totally done with winter, it is still chilly enough in the night to have a wood fire: but it is dry enough that a spark from the chimney could ignite the dry grasses.

“We have to reconcile ourselves to what is going on. We don’t know if this is a weather anomaly or a pattern of things to come. We still have a month of winter, but it doesn’t feel like it.”

Fortunately, the district has received enough grants to purchase about $250,000 worth of equipment: air packs, bunker gear, new high tech radios giving the district improved ability to communicate with other agencies. There is still, however, the struggle to pay the firefighters’ competitive wages so we don’t end up losing our valuable members to larger districts as well as have a day to day operational budget to get through each day.

“With their new skills and training, the firefighters become more valuable,” says Dirr. “Fortunately, these guys are local and committed to the town.”

Joslin and Schmidtmann say they aren’t going anywhere. They braved last summer’s fires together and they will be here to meet whatever challenges this summer has to bring.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.