Passing the torch: Chris Jackson promoted to Grand Valley Fire Protection District chief
Current chief Dave Blair to retire by Dec. 31
Chris Jackson was gardening with his wife when he noticed a plume of smoke rise from nearby forestland.
Jackson, soon taking over for Dave Blair as head chief of the Grand Valley Fire Protection District, then received an obligatory call.
“Well,” Jackson recalled. “I guess I better get dressed.”
This emergency call was made June 24, the first day of the Spring Creek Fire south of Parachute. The wildfire, now suspected to be man-made, later peaked at more than 3,000 acres, data shows. Jackson confirmed the fire also blew over several natural gas well pads.
“It was pretty intense to see a fire grow from 200 acres to 1,500 acres inside of two hours,” Jackson said. “It’s insane.”
For the Florida native, 46, Spring Creek was not only his biggest exposure to the National Incident Management System, it was the fiercest deviation from his career of mainly fighting structure fires.
Spring Creek’s spread summoned more than 400 firefighters, from California, Oregon, Wyoming — even his native Florida. He also worked side by side with the Bureau of Land Management.
As federal airplanes scraped the landscape in trails of red retardant and helicopters unleashed hazes of water, it was Jackson’s job to ensure everyone’s safety while crews set perimeters in uninhabitable, unforgiving terrain.
“The fire was burning in areas that we just couldn’t get to very easily,” Jackson said, adding that the smoke was visible for miles. “But once you get back into those hills, you don’t see where the fire is. The mountains and topography, it’s very limiting.
“We relied on existing oil and gas roads to get access to these fires, but a lot of the places you just had to hike up and hike in.”
But amid the soot-chalked faces of his Grand Valley crews combating Spring Creek’s exponential expansion emerged another challenge: norovirus.
This contagious bug broke out among Spring Creek crews seemingly as fast as the fire itself. At the makeshift encampment at Cottonwood Park, firefighters were afflicted with nausea, vomiting and fever.
Both Jackson and his wife Sherry, however, are certified paramedics. They quickly took it upon themselves to rush to the Grand River Health pharmacy, buy up as much antiemetic medicine as they could and soon administer it to scores of firefighters.
“For the initial phases of that outbreak, I stepped up and went over and helped volunteer, starting IVs with my wife because we were so short-staffed and everybody was focused on fighting the fire,” Jackson said. “That was not something that we had planned for.”
In the end, Jackson and Sherry treated more than 70 firefighters.
The fire is considered 100% contained; however, interior spots will be left smoldering likely until snow falls, according to Jackson’s estimates.
All in the family
Jackson grew up in Delray Beach, Florida, where his father, Todd, was the city’s fire chief.
“I always kind of knew I wanted to be in the fire service. I grew up around it — that slide down the poles and all the fun stuff,” Jackson said. “So, that’s what I did right out of high school.”
Wasting no time, Jackson acquired certifications in fire, emergency medical technician and paramedic fields. He then outshined about 4,000 fellow applicants and nabbed his first bonafide first responder position — a firefighter/EMT with Ft. Lauderdale Fire Rescue.
After six years in Ft. Lauderdale, Jackson acquired positions with the DeKalb County Fire Rescue in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, Georgia, as well as the Smyrna Fire Department, also in the greater Atlanta metro area.
By 2011, Jackson was offered a lead faculty position for Colorado Mountain College’s EMT/fire program at the Rifle campus.
“Around that time I was recovering from testicular cancer. I kind of thought my fire days were over,” Jackson said. “Thankfully, it was caught quick and everything was fine, but there was a time I thought I wasn’t going to be a firefighter anymore.”
Still, overcoming the odds Jackson was encouraged to eventually apply to the Grand Valley Fire Protection District in 2012. By 2014, he was on full time.
Jackson was then promoted to deputy fire chief in 2018.
“I kind of always knew I wanted to go the route my dad did,” Jackson said.
Chief Blair’s next chapter
Outgoing Grand Valley Chief Dave Blair is a product of western Garfield County’s oil shale days.
Shortly after the Limon native worked on the Unocal Oil Refinery Project near Parachute Creek in the early 1980s, he joined Parachute’s volunteer fire department in October 1985.
Blair later became head Grand Valley fire chief in 1997.
“In ’87, we had a big fire here on Battlement Mesa — 3,600 acres,” Blair recalled. “That was kind of my first introduction to big fire. And then, in ’99, I had already been fire chief for two years when we had the large fire on the mesa itself, where we lost nine houses and significantly damaged, I think, 30-40 houses.”
With Blair fully retiring Dec. 31, 26 years of institutional fire chief knowledge precede Jackson. Blair said, however, he has an excellent staff and also helped mold Jackson into the person they wanted and knew he would be.
This makes the job a lot easier, Blair added.
“The community is going to be very fortunate that we brought Chris in, because he’s been in his deputy chief role for the past five years,” Blair said. “He lives in the community, he’s known in the community, he shares the same values and believes in the mission’s statement of the fire district. And I think it’s going to be a seamless transfer.”
Blair and his wife, Gail, have been married since 1979. His son, Cody, is also a Grand Valley firefighter while his other son, Jeremy, a U.S. Navy veteran, lives in Delta.
Blair, 67, and Gail also have six grandchildren. In addition to spending time with family, Blair said he looks forward to traveling the nation and participating in car shows.
Right now Blair is restoring — befittingly — a 1920 Chevrolet fire truck.
His final thoughts on retirement?
“It’s getting real now that when you start preparing for the 2024 budget you have to delete your own name from the staff. That’s probably the biggest thing,” Blair said. “The reality is that you will no longer be part of the district, per se, in the coming years. But I’m looking forward to retirement.
“I’m heavily into old cars and touring, so we’ll be doing a lot of that, I’m sure.”
Jackson acknowledges the heavy torch being handed to him by his predecessor.
“I feel very privileged,” he said. “I have very big shoes to fill. (Blair) has been a great mentor, and he’s been an excellent chief. I feel I have the skills and the training and the experiences now to be an effective chief like he is and that’s going to be my intention.”
Jackson takes over as Grand Valley stares down about $6.8 million budgeted for the general fund, 42 personnel and three executive staff, including himself.
Meanwhile, Grand Valley used to average about 600 emergency calls per year. The district cleared 1,200 in 2022.
“It’s increasing every year,” Jackson said of the calls, adding that more people are moving to the Parachute and Battlement Mesa communities due to a cheaper housing market. “We’re one of the most affordable places to live in Colorado.”
With this in mind, one of Jackson’s biggest goals is to add staff to the district with the aim of bracing for higher influxes and providing a better service to the community.
Jackson and Sherry have four kids. When he’s not fighting fires, Jackson does home renovations, fishes, hunts and plays golf.
Jackson also continues to teach first-responder courses part time at Colorado Mountain College.
A meet-and-greet of Chief Jackson is slated for 1-5 p.m. on Sept. 30 at the main Grand Valley Fire Protection District station, 124 Stone Quarry Road, Parachute.
Jackson said he’s honored to take over and feels it’s a huge accomplishment.
“I really wish my dad was alive to see it, but he passed away in ’14,” he said. “But I know my family’s very proud of me.”
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