Firefighters handle Coal Seam and subsequent stress with equal aplomb |

Firefighters handle Coal Seam and subsequent stress with equal aplomb

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The fire engines at West Glenwood’s fire station are lined up outside, bright red and polished in the early summer sun. The place has a relaxed, yet ready-to-go, feel to it.

A firefighter hoses down the station’s concrete garage floor, while inside, Glenwood Springs fire captain Darryl Queen tends to some paperwork in the meeting room.

A year ago, the mood was far different when the Coal Seam Fire started on June 8, a few miles southwest of this Glenwood Springs station. It was a Saturday afternoon that firefighters who worked on the fire will never forget.

Chris Caywood is a Glenwood Springs volunteer firefighter whose cat died when his West Glenwood house was destroyed in the Coal Seam blaze. Now, he said, experiencing those losses have just strengthened his resolve.

“It makes me want to do it even more,” he said of firefighting, “because now I know the victims’ standpoint. I always thought that, on TV, it’s dramatized when victims thank the firefighters, but now I understand it’s the real deal. I can’t say thank you enough to the volunteers, the firefighters and the general public who’ve helped me.”

Caywood was on vacation and staying at his West Glenwood home the day the Coal Seam Fire broke out, but he had his pager on anyway when it went off.

“When I clock out, my pager stays on,” he said. “I am available.”

Caywood said he headed over to the West Glenwood station and got on the first truck to reach the Coal Seam Fire that day. He saw the fire as it jumped South Canyon Road, near the landfill. He moved with fellow firefighters to the South Canyon exit and later, to the Canyon Creek exit in case the fire turned west.

“I didn’t get concerned about my house until I heard that the fire had advanced beyond Ami’s Acres,” Caywood said.

Caywood worked a straight 32-hour shift, then spent the night at his sister Brenda Caywood’s house in Glenwood, after discovering that his house and cat were gone.

Caywood said confronting the death of his cat was harder than dealing with the loss of his house. He doesn’t have any adverse feelings about fighting fires, and just purchased a house in West Glenwood in his old neighborhood. He also has two new cats: Savannah and Yes.

“I’m glad to be alive, and I’m glad no one was injured,” he said. “Quite a few animals were lost, but in the case of my house, do you base your life on inanimate objects? Personally, with all the care and concern from my fellow firefighters and the community, I feel like the richest guy in the world.”

The Coal Seam Fire hit Carbondale deputy fire chief Rob Goodwin very hard. For the first 30 hours of the fire, Goodwin was the operations chief, running the battle from the West Glenwood station before the building was evacuated. He said it was his job was to put firefighters literally into the line of fire.

“It took me nine months to get past that stress,” he said. “I was ordering guys into some really dangerous areas like Mitchell Creek. I shook for three days after the fire went out.”

Glenwood Springs fire chief Mike Piper said the stress of firefighting hits people at different times.

“That’s our job,” Piper said. “It can happen to you after witnessing a little kid falling from a house and dying, or it can happen in the midst of a big fire like Coal Seam. Our emotions can run the gamut. But we understand and learn how to deal with it.

“No one in the department left their job because of Coal Seam,” he added.

Piper said one of the variables that makes a firefighter’s job difficult is its unpredictability.

“That’s what risk management is all about,” he said. ” We don’t have a crystal ball so we’re always ready to go. We’re always on edge.”

Captain Queen said he uses his intuition at times.

“I remember the morning of Coal Seam, I noticed there was almost a static electricity in the air,” he said. “I told my wife that morning, `I think something is going to happen today.'”

As part of training, Piper said, first responders learn how to deal with those stresses.

“Everybody gets as prepared as they can,” he said.

Goodwin said it was difficult for him when a month after Coal Seam, the Panorama Fire ignited on Missouri Heights.

“After Coal Seam, I thought I just didn’t want to do it,” he said of firefighting. “But in a way, that fire was actually therapeutic. Like a lot of guys dealing with that kind of stress, it showed me I could do it, and that I wanted to do it. In the fire business, you do it whether you want to or not.”

Goodwin said, because of the loss of life, there’s quite a different feeling between the stresses of the Storm King Fire of 1994, which killed 14 federal firefighters, and the Coal Seam fires.

“Storm King was just incredibly sad,” Goodwin said. “To lose one, much less 14 – you almost can’t get over it. But with Coal Seam, though we weren’t what I’d call victorious, we survived. We felt happy, almost giddy after Coal Seam.”

Goodwin said there’s “nothing special” about firefighters.

“We’re not special, we’re just different,” he said, “but so are doctors and so are mothers. Everyone has certain ways, certain strengths they use in their lives.”

Queen said if there’s any attribute firefighters may have, it’s an ability to deal with out-of-control situations.

“With fire, and particularly Coal Seam, we try to be proactive in totally reactive situations,” he said.

With a year of introspection, he said Coal Seam has made him more aware in general.

“It’s like the aging process,” Queen said. “As you get older, you get more respect for your surroundings. I think we all have that now.”

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518

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