9/11, summer’s fires reminders of risks firefighters, cops take to serve public | PostIndependent.com
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9/11, summer’s fires reminders of risks firefighters, cops take to serve public

Dennis Webb
News Editor

The tragedy of last year’s Sept. 11 attacks made it clear, and the threat of this year’s Coal Seam Fire provided a local reminder.

Firefighting and police work are dangerous undertakings.

And thank goodness there are those out there who are willing to take risks to help make the rest of us safe.

When the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed, they claimed 343 firefighters’ lives. The loss produced a national outpouring of gratitude toward firefighters and other public safety officers for the courageous work they do.

Local residents already shared in that sentiment, when this summer’s fires reinforced it.

“I think after 9/11 there was a more general sense of appreciation and awareness of what happens when it gets ugly, but I think our situation this summer really brought it home,” said Glenwood Springs police chief Terry Wilson.

As the Coal Seam Fire bore down on Glenwood Springs June 8, Wilson’s officers were instrumental in evacuating much of the town. Although 29 homes were lost, no one was injured or killed by the fire.

Police officers also have been involved in dealing with mudflows in West Glenwood. In one incident, Lt. Lou Vallario joined Division of Wildlife hatchery manager Rich Kolecki in risking their lives to wade through flows and lead two stranded motorists to safety.

Wilson has always been impressed by how much residents appreciate public servants, but the gratitude expressed this summer goes further.

“I think you can sense a little more seriousness in it, a little more awareness as far as folks saying, `That was really a bad situation, and they dealt with it well,'” he said.

For Darryl Queen, battalion chief for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, it’s the little acknowledgments that count the most, and he’s noticed more and more of those since 9/11, and particularly after this summer’s fires.

“For me, anyway, you see people waving at you that never waved at you before,” he said.

Such actions recognize the work done by people who indeed have chosen a dangerous profession. In an average year, some 100 to 120 firefighters die on the job, said Queen.

`You never know …’

Before the events of the last year, some local firefighters often looked the other way rather than confront the reality that firefighters can die on the job, said Queen.

“The reality is it can happen here any second, and it happens,” said Queen.

Fourteen wildland firefighters died in the Storm King Fire just west of town in 1994.

That fire drove home the importance of safety considerations in firefighting, and the message was reinforced this year with the Coal Seam Fire, said Queen.

Meanwhile, the 9/11 attacks also reminded local firefighters of the high stakes of their profession.

“I think we all have the same feeling. That whole New York thing was a terrible loss and I think it’s made everybody more aware of what we do, the importance of family, the importance of the family of firefighters.

“… I think it just has driven home really the importance of being just very … appreciative of those special moments that you are able to share with your family and the people that are close to you. Because you never know when it’s your turn,” Queen said.

Wilson sees less contemplation of the dangers of the job in his department, which he attributes to youth.

“I think that all these apparent 21-years-olds that we hire nowadays, they don’t know what it is to be fearful anyway,” he said.

For senior members of the force, it’s different, partly because they analyze situations such as the Coal Seam Fire to determine how they could be more safely handled.

Street cops, meanwhile, are charging off to the next call, said Wilson.

Putting their lives on the line is just part of the job to most cops anyway, said Wilson.

“I think people come into this job anticipating that’s what we’re here for.

“It’s kind of what we live for. We are crisis oriented. That’s our job. So when things hit the fan, somebody should respond that has a clue,” Wilson said.

“I think most folks who come into law enforcement do so with a pretty clear understanding that somewhere along the line you’re going to get into a critical situation – a person with a gun, a fire coming over the mountain, a mudslide.”

`A catastrophic summer’

“Somewhere along the line” is one thing, but this summer has been extraordinary in delivering one natural disaster after another.

“We’ve had a catastrophic summer here,” said Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri.

He’s the county’s top cop and its top fire officer, and his deputies have been involved in all the big fires, including Coal Seam, Spring Creek, Panorama and Thompson Creek.

“We were constantly responding to these things all summer long. We really haven’t had a break,” Dalessandri said.

Most deputies haven’t had time off all summer. Some pulled 18- and 20-hour shifts during the height of this summer’s disasters.

“It’s been a very, very busy summer and they’ve made tremendous sacrifices. … These guys are pretty weary right now.”

Dalessandri said he thinks that after this summer’s fires and mudflows, residents have a new understanding of “what public safety people put themselves through” on the public’s behalf.

“I think the community as a whole is very appreciative of what we did over that whole process,” said Dalessandri, who said his department has received many calls of thanks after the fires. “Certainly it helps, I think, for the officers to be recognized for what they do.”

Dalessandri said his deputies deal day-to-day with a lot of trauma that doesn’t get the same attention as disasters.

He recalled a deputy who had just brought home a new baby, then covered two fatal accidents involving infants.

“He was devastated. All he could say was `I’m just going home and holding my baby.’ Those are the kind of things that I think are reminiscent of 9/11.”

Dalessandri worries that the public remains somewhat numbed by 9/11, and that the next terrorism attack, which he considers to be inevitable, might stir latent unrest and fear.

“People may react more overtly,” including by arming themselves, he said.

He sees society, including at a local level, as being edgy and restless. There’s a lot of volunteerism and willingness to help on one hand, but a tendency to be short with one another on the other.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” reasoned Dalessandri, who sees the edginess being played out on one level by highly aggressive driving.

For all the support public safety officials receive, Dalessandri also catches criticism as well.

“There are those who at times are hypercritical,” he said.

Such criticism “cuts deeply” for deputies who Dalessandri believes are acting in the public’s best interest, he said.

Queen, too, knows what it’s like to have critics, such as people who think firefighters have been playing checkers all morning when they’ve been training instead.

But by and large, he cherishes the high level of support firefighters enjoy locally.

A community that cares

The valley has endured an inordinate share of major tragedies, but the community has proven to be “very strong and supportive,” Queen said.

“You really don’t have a clue how supportive a community is until you actually are involved in something like (Coal Seam) and see how quickly things starting pouring out of the woodwork,” from hamburgers donated by McDonald’s to cookies baked by kids, he said.

Said Wilson, “That’s one of the marvelous things about working here is that I think people do appreciate what we do.”

Wilson considered a police career in Los Angeles, where his father was a homicide detective. But he’s glad he took his dad’s advice and stayed in a small town, where he doesn’t serve in anonymity. Here, people approach him in the grocery store and thank him for his efforts.

Queen treasures such simple expressions of gratitude.

“Those kinds of things to me are what’s important.”

He hopes the public realizes that many of the firefighters who put their lives on the line to save homes this summer weren’t paid staff, but volunteers.

“For the most part, those guys … were just your average Joe Blow guys. They were just guys that work in the liquor stores and do the construction work and work in the restaurants and are your neighbors,” Queen said. “When you see the fire tag on the front of their vehicles, just wave and say thanks. They were there because it’s their community.”


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