Jim Mason: 25 years as a Roaring Fork Valley firefighter
by Walter Gallacher
Intro: Jim Mason has spent nearly 50 years of his life in the Roaring Fork Valley. Twenty-five of those he spent as a firefighter, first as a volunteer and eventually as the Glenwood Springs fire chief. When Jim retired in 1999, the Glenwood Springs fire district had one of the best ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings on the Western Slope.
Mason: I grew up in Denver and came to Glenwood as a young man. I fell in love with the valley and bought my first home when I was 21. I started remodeling, and as I was fixing the place up I would occasionally hear a siren blow. In those days, the department was all-volunteer and firefighters knew to come running when they heard the siren.
The more I heard that sound the more I thought, “I’m a homeowner now. I should go down and try to join the fire department.” So I remember riding my bike down there one day after a call. The bay doors were open and a bunch of the old boys were hangin’ out, and I said, “Are you guys looking for any volunteers?” And one of the guys kinda growled, “No, we aren’t looking for any volunteers.”
I rode off thinking, “Well, that was interesting.”
Gallacher: Yeah, I’m sure that didn’t feel very welcoming.
Mason: But I didn’t let that stop me, and I eventually got to talk to “Buzz” Zancanella, who was fire chief at that time. The Zancanellas were historic firefighters in the valley. Buzz’s dad, “Bugo,” was fire chief for over 40 years, and Buzz succeeded him.
Buzz was really welcoming. He told me to come back Thursday night for the weekly meeting. So I showed up to a room full of veteran firefighters. There were only a couple of new guys like me. So I sat there quietly and took it all in. We had some training, but it wasn’t too extensive.
Gallacher: So there was a whole rites of passage that you understood pretty quickly — “sit quietly and don’t speak unless spoken to.”
Mason: Yes, absolutely. Find someone who is willing to mentor you and at least show you how to get water out of the truck. Ultimately it became very welcoming. If you expressed an interest and a willingness to learn they would definitely help you out.
Gallacher: So when did you feel that you had passed and been accepted?
Mason: Well, I think one of those times is when I made my first entry into a burning building, and that happened pretty early on.
Back then, we had two air packs for the entire department. There were four air bottles, now there are 20 or 30 air packs and 60 air bottles. In those days, you were lucky to have a coat, there were no pants, no bunker boots, so we were making these fire entries in whatever we showed up in.
Gallacher: Wow, that sounds really dangerous.
Mason: Well, that’s true, but there wasn’t a lot of money for equipment back then. I made my first entry with Marty Zemlock, who was our training captain at the time, and I think it was after that I felt like I had been accepted.
My career in the fire service is probably one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done. I got to witness a lot of changes in my time there. I will never forget how we got into rescue work and emergency medicine.
We had a call one night that the ambulance service was paging us for a car accident in the canyon. We were all looking at each other and saying, “Car accident? What do they want us for?” That was never part of what we did.
But this was a two-car accident with people trapped in both vehicles. Bob Lawton was the ambulance driver, and he had no one to help him. So we all went out there and did the best we could, prying doors open with tire irons and whatever else we had on board.
We were able to get everybody out, and we came back pretty stoked and inspired. We started building a working relationship and doing joint trainings with the ambulance service, which was separate at the time. That event was the beginning of emergency rescue and auto extrication for the department.
Gallacher: So it was all volunteers when you joined?
Mason: Yes, finally in 1979 we made the fire chief a paid position. By then we had acquired a lot of the equipment needed to fight fires more effectively.
Gallacher: You have been on the front lines of some major events in this valley.
Mason: Well, for a small town department we have had an amazing number of big, big calls. When I took over as chief in 1985, I was on a six-month probationary period, and that was when the Rocky Mountain Gas explosion happened. We had 12 people that died, and 27 were taken to the hospital. One of our firefighters lost his wife in that explosion. Fortunately, he wasn’t on that call.
Everybody in town was connected to somebody in that building. We conducted a lengthy investigation and were able to prove that it was accidental. That explosion was really emotional for the department and the town.
Gallacher: Yeah, like the Storm King Fire.
Mason: That fire started as a lightning strike on July 4th, 1994. On July 6th it blew up. There were over 50 firefighters on the mountain, and when it blew we took the fire over for the next 17 hours. We were involved in the recovery of the 14 who died and getting the injured and the others off the hill and ordering resources and preparing for the next day and the next phase of the fire.
By the following morning when we turned it over to the Type 1 overhead team there were 200 firefighters and 80 or 90 engines and tankers working the fire. There were all kinds of things happening.
Gallacher: Where were you the day the fire blew up?
Mason: It blew on a Friday afternoon, and I had gone out earlier that day. I remember they had a helicopter trying to sling-load equipment into the firefighters on the hill. There were other crews arriving on scene and preparing to be airlifted into the fire.
It was a very eerie day. The fire was smoldering all over the place and there were very high, erratic winds. I had a quick conversation with the incident commander. We decided to search out more water supplies and prepare for something bigger.
The fire had grown in size and, at that time, there were fires burning all over the state. Back then there was very limited air support, the helicopters and slurry bombers that you see on a regular basis today weren’t available then. If we had had that kind of support the fire probably wouldn’t have gone beyond its initial stages.
I came back to town and told the assistant chief to get the subdivision plans for Canyon Creek Estates, in case the fire headed that way. I called the sheriff to express my concerns, and it was right then that it blew up. I ran out the door heading back, and it looked like an atom bomb had gone off. It was amazing, amazing plume of smoke.
Gallacher: Did you know then that the firefighters were in trouble?
Mason: Well, I was hopeful that everyone would be OK, but I knew there was potential for loss of life there. We called for mutual aid and set up our command center in a garage at Canyon Creek Estates and started involving the BLM and the Forest Service in our command team.
Meanwhile we were getting the firefighters off the mountain and trying to get a count so we could determine who was missing. If I remember right, within that first hour we knew exactly who was missing. That proved to be the list of the 14.
Everybody was doing their job. There have been a lot of negative things said about that fire and what we “coulda shoulda” done.
Gallacher: Yeah, usually people are looking for one person to blame. What’s your assessment?
Mason: I think they had the best safety route they could have under the circumstances. Would we all have done something different if we had known what we know now? Of course. Thirty-eight people survived that fire. There were a lot of people helping one another get off that mountain that day.
That fire pretty much changed the way the Forest Service and the BLM fights fires now. It made everybody a lot more aware of weather conditions. There are many more air resources than we had then. Rifle now has a helicopter base thanks to the work of Mike Morgan, the Rifle fire chief.
Gallacher: The Storm King Fire had a profound affect on our town and the nation.
Mason: Yeah there was national memorial service in Two Rivers Park.
Gallacher: Did you speak at that event?
Mason: I’m not much for speeches. It was a national event, and that required security, emergency response. There were thousands of people in the park, and it was a hot summer day, so we just focused on what our job was and is.
Gallacher: Were you with the fire department for the Coal Seam Fire?
Mason: No, that fire was in 2002 and I retired in 2000.
Gallacher: That one hit close to home.
Mason: Yeah, it came over the hill near my home in West Glenwood. The whole neighborhood was evacuated at that point, but I decided to stick around and see what I could do. I had my truck poised and ready for an escape, but I figured that if any embers blew into the yard I would be able to put them out and maybe keep things from spreading.
The fire did make its way into the neighborhood, so I turned on my neighbors’ hoses, and I was able to move around and put out the spot fires and save a few of those places.