Time for Durango’s fire marshal Kaufman to turn in his badge

Tom Kaufman began fighting fires in Durango in 1977. He has seen plenty of tragedy, but as fire marshal, he has strived to prevent it. Here he shares a light moment with Gazpacho restaurant owner Matt Arias the morning after freshly laundered kitchen rags ignited because of lingering oil and grease. There was smoke but no damage. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald

Tom Kaufman began fighting fires in Durango in 1977. He has seen plenty of tragedy, but as fire marshal, he has strived to prevent it. Here he shares a light moment with Gazpacho restaurant owner Matt Arias the morning after freshly laundered kitchen rags ignited because of lingering oil and grease. There was smoke but no damage.

Firefighters leaped onto the tailboard of the moving firetruck as it sped from the station.

While a fellow firefighter held on to them, they stuffed arms and legs into protective gear as the truck raced through traffic across town.

It was pell-mell, it was adrenaline-producing, it was action-packed.

“This is really exciting,” Tom Kaufman remembers thinking of his rookie years as a Durango firefighter in the late 1970s. “Luckily I never fell off, but there were some times it was close.”

Taking such risks wasn’t something that a family man making $3.12 an hour really could afford to do, on any level.

“Well,” Kaufman said with a smile during a recent interview, “we don’t do things that way anymore. Having firefighters fall off the truck is really counterproductive.”

After 34 years of chasing, stopping and preventing community fires, the 61-year-old is leaving the business. The defeat in November of a proposal to restructure Durango Fire & Rescue Authority’s taxing mechanism, the infamous Ballot Issue 4A, and a job opportunity paved his new path.

Kaufman sat down for an interview at DFRA headquarters in Bodo Industrial Park. He also allowed the Herald to join him last week on what he figured was his final fire investigation for DFRA. More on that later.

Kaufman has been the fire marshal since Frank Shry retired in 1998. It’s a good guy/bad guy job that has its share of the limelight. When there’s a fire, he is the one assigning blame – not always a popular position. When a business needs to be told to make an expensive improvement, he’s the guy. But he’s also the person who keeps everyone safe, and sometimes he even gets credit. His current boss is quick to sing praise and bemoan his leaving.

“It’s not just the loss of a high-level employee,” said Dan Noonan, DFRA chief. “It’s the loss of a true friend. And it’s a loss to the community.”

Kaufman, he said, knows the fire code, but more important, knows how and when to enforce it. The goal is to prevent damage and deaths, not to enforce rules that simply cost businesses time and money.

“Tom understands the value of following code,” Noonan said. “It’s never black and white.”

With Kaufman’s departure, DFRA’s fire-prevention department will shrink from five to four. Noonan tries hard not to be bitter about 4A’s defeat, but he doesn’t hide from his belief that it’s the public that will ultimately suffer.

“They save more lives in prevention than we save in the act of fighting fires,” Noonan said. “Can I prove that? No. But I know it in my heart.”

Fighting fires in Durango has certainly changed since Kaufman was hired in 1977. That first year, the department responded to just 112 calls. “When we went, it’s a horrific accident scene,” he said.

Now, with the area’s growth and the addition of medical calls, DFRA responds to about 4,000 calls each year. And everyone is seated with belts on before the engineer pulls the truck out of the station.

Kaufman was promoted to engineer in 1979, then to lieutenant in 1981 and captain in 1986.

When his ankle was “almost broken off” in a 1986 city league softball game, he switched to training coordinator. With Shry’s retirement in 1998, Kaufman stepped into the marshal’s role. Also, since 1985, he has worked as a special deputy in arson investigations with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

All this experience has prepared him for his new role in the private sector, as a fire investigator with Denver-based Iris Investigations. Insurance companies hire Iris to look at fires and determine whether there’s someone or something culpable that negates their having to pay for a loss – arson, for instance.

He’s proud and relieved to retire without ever being involved in a response where a firefighter died. But some days there were close calls. Consider Feb. 22, 2008.

A fire began in a concealed space above Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, the result of improperly installed duct work over the grill. Firefighters were on scene when an explosion blew out walls and windows and sent nine DFRA responders to the hospital. None suffered life-threatening injuries.

“It was a horrific fire,” Kaufman said. “It was one of those fires that changed my life in the fire service.

“It opened our eyes to suggest that commercial kitchens really are a big concern for us. And we’ve got a number of restaurants corrected because of that fire.”

And perhaps even some lives saved.

The fire has become a case study, not just here but around the state and the country. Kaufman and his cohorts at DFRA have put together a Power Point presentation on the Seasons fire – why it occurred, firefighting tactics and the explosion. It has been shown, mostly by him and Noonan, dozens of times around the state.

Last week, Kaufman was called to Gazpacho restaurant to inspect a pile of charred rags. It doesn’t sound like much, but it easily could have been.

The floor manager was making his final rounds when he smelled smoke in the kitchen area. As the fire department arrived, owner Matt Arias realized the smell was from folded rags recently piled atop the dryer. When the firefighters threw the rags outside, they erupted in flames.

The cause: Rags with natural oils (linseed oil, cooking oil), piled or thrown together, can begin a slow oxidation process, sometimes taking several hours, which can end in extreme heat and then fire.

For Kaufman, another case solved.

This one was easy. But sometimes the culprit – human or non-human – is not so simple to prove.

“Did I catch every arsonist? No,” Kaufman said. “I know who they are.”

A Lakewood High School grad, Kaufman arrived in Durango in 1968 to attend Fort Lewis College (he’s 18 credit hours short of a degree), fell in love with Southwest Colorado and his wife, and stayed. Tom and Sheryl Kaufman, a high school teacher in Farmington, have no plans to leave the area. Their two daughters live in Colorado.

Tom Kaufman’s last official day is Jan. 7, although, barring a catastrophe, his last work day was Friday. He said he’s quitting because the budget needs a trim. His voice grew quiet as he repeated what he told Noonan.

“If you’re going to let somebody go from the fire prevention bureau, I will be the first,” he said.

“It’s been a wonderful career. ... I like to think I made a significant difference.”

In three-plus decades he has accumulated oodles of wisdom. He won’t name names, but there are restaurants he doesn’t trust and probably won’t enter. And although it’s probably not the most valuable advice he has to give, it makes a good parting shot:

“If you have a concern about the restaurant you’re eating at, sit close to the door,” he said.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

Retiring Fire Marshal Tom Kaufman gathers a camera and batteries before leaving his office Wednesday on what he expects will be his last investigation for Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald

Retiring Fire Marshal Tom Kaufman gathers a camera and batteries before leaving his office Wednesday on what he expects will be his last investigation for Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.

Tom Kaufman began fighting fires in Durango in 1977. He’s seen plenty of tragedy, but as fire marshal has strived to prevent it. Here he shares a light moment with Gazpacho restaurant owner Matt Arias the morning after freshly laundered kitchen rags ignited because of lingering oil and grease. There was smoke but no damage. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald

Tom Kaufman began fighting fires in Durango in 1977. He’s seen plenty of tragedy, but as fire marshal has strived to prevent it. Here he shares a light moment with Gazpacho restaurant owner Matt Arias the morning after freshly laundered kitchen rags ignited because of lingering oil and grease. There was smoke but no damage.