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Ex fire chief the hero of Creekside Court

Tamie Meck

Residents of Creekside Court couldn’t ask for a better neighbor than Jim Mason.

He came in particularly handy on the afternoon of June 8, when the Coal Seam Fire blew up and stretched its fiery wings into the little out-of-the-way West Glenwood neighborhood.

“He is my hero, I can tell you that much right now,” said Creekside resident Ken Wiencek.

When the fire headed into West Glenwood, Mason remained in his neighborhood and held the inferno at bay. He is just one of many heroes rising out of the ashes of this fire.

“I want to stress that the decision to stay was a calculated risk based on 23 years of experience,” said Mason, a former member of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department. Mason joined the department in 1975, and served as fire chief from 1985 to 1999.

In short, Mason did what he was trained to do.

In doing so, he possibly saved the neighborhood, as well as other parts of West Glenwood, from disaster.

Like everyone else, said Mason, he and wife Renee spent Saturday afternoon watching the smoke from their deck. “From our perspective, we didn’t know for sure if the fire had jumped the (Colorado) river.” At around 6 p.m., things started to heat up.

The fire came rolling over the ridge toward the neighborhood. Mason told his wife, son Jonathan and his visiting in-laws to close the windows and leave.

He told Renee he was going to “hang out and just see where this thing’s going.” He donned his old Nomex fire gear and ran door to door warning his neighbors to get out. Some had already done so, while others were just about to leave, he said.

Mason also positioned a get-away vehicle on the street. If the fire came in fast, he’d be out of there, he said. “If it would creep, I felt that maybe I could do some good.”

Neighbor Susie Straus said she and her family had just moments to evacuate their home. She, husband Mark, daughter Jamie, 19, and son Scott, 15, were all home at the time. Jamie had seen the fast-approaching fire out of the basement sliding glass window.

“We ran because we saw flames,” said Susie. “With Storm King, we had time to pack and watch,” she said, recalling the 1994 fire that threatened West Glenwood neighborhoods and killed 14 firefighters. “This was grab the animals and go.”

“We didn’t think we were in any danger,” recalled Melanie Livingston. She and husband Bill were sitting down to dinner with neighbors Nancy and John Brooks when the fire came over the ridge to the west.

They sat down, saw the flames, and left dinner on the table.

“We really didn’t know what he had done until later,” said Livingston. When they returned home on Tuesday, Mason showed them the photographs he took in between the moments he was fending fire. That’s when they realized the risk he had taken.

Nancy and John Brooks grabbed two quilts that her grandmother had made and her daughter Charlotte’s portfolio albums, and drove to Glenwood Springs High School.

As she was driving away, Mason reached into the window, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be OK.”

“I know he saved the block,” said Brooks. “We all just feel so indebted to him.”

Once everyone was out, Mason watched spot fires in an adjacent field, then noticed flames coming from a vacant lot between the Brooks’ home and the house owned by Gregg and Marilee Rippy.

He tried 911, but couldn’t get through. He called Fire Station 1 in West Glenwood to request a fire engine.

He then ran to the Brooks’ and set sprinklers on the house. He turned on Rippy’s sprinklers and knocked down a small fire that had crept onto their land. The Rippys had already cleared vegetation from around their home, which probably helped save their house, said Mason.

Back and forth, back and forth he went from Rippy’s to Brooks’, until fire approached houses downhill owned by Brad Nichols and John McClenahan. “I did the same thing there,” he said.

Then the fire jumped to the house beyond, owned by Ken and Erin Wiencek, and brushed up against their deck. Using a shovel and a garden hose he was able to keep the fire from engulfing their house.

Then Engine 2, a Forest Service engine from Rifle arrived, “which was wonderful,” said Mason.

After brief introductions, the crew of Engine 2 got out their hoses, and the rest was pretty easy, said Mason. “Engine 2, they’re the real heroes.”

Only the Wiencek home suffered damage. Heat melted rain gutters, cracked windows, and burned a corner of the back porch, said Ken. The woods between their home and the creek were also charred. “That was part of the charm of living in that location,” said Ken.

Ken Wiencek, a bass player, had gone with Erin to Grand Junction Saturday for a gig. Erin doesn’t usually go on these trips, said Ken. “I was sure glad Erin went with me. It was one less thing to worry about.”

Wiencek called Mason on his cell phone, and was assured that his house was still intact.

“I’m just totally convinced that Jim is our hero,” said Ken. “He could have saved some lives, too.”

“I do feel that had one house caught fire, it would have meant way more trouble,” said Mason. “It’s hard to speculate.”

“He did what he had to do,” said Darryl Queen, a battalion chief with the GSFD.

“There’s an old saying in firefighting,” said Queen. “The first thing you take care of is yourself; second, you take care of everyone dressed in yellow (firefighters), and third, you take care of everyone else.

“That’s exactly what he did.”

Mason said he went into selling real estate after retiring from the fire department.

He now runs Spirit of the West Land Co., which specializes in farm and ranch, recreational and vacant land.

Going back into firefighting, if only for a few hours, was actually fun, he admitted.

“I was happy to help,” he said.


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