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Firefighting volunteers needed in remote regions of La Plata County

New battalion chief in charge of training is always looking for quality volunteers, especially those with an eye on becoming full-time firefighters
Don Woodmansee, the Durango Fire Protection District battalion chief of training, transferred from the Littleton Fire Department to Durango in April. Working in Durango provides for more dynamic calls than he experienced in his 20-plus years on the Front Range. Woodmansee stands in front of the Fire Tower Training Facility at Station 1. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Training volunteers to save lives and stay alive in dangerous situations is not light duty. Combat veteran Don Woodmansee had no illusions about that when he stepped into the role of battalion chief of training for the Durango Fire District in April.

Woodmansee was a firefighter in the greater-Denver area for 20 years before transferring to the Durango fire district, in large part to get back to his rural roots and escape the ever-expanding population along the Front Range. Before and during his time as a firefighter, Woodmansee served in the Marine Corps and then deployed with the Army National Guard in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was his final tour, in Afghanistan, that he found himself thrust into the position of responsibility for the lives of others. His platoon set down in the Hindu Kush region shortly before the fighting season (marked by good weather) as part of the U.S. surge in 2009 and 2010.

“Kind of the last sprint, if you will,” he said. “I was a platoon sergeant and our first mission out of the door our platoon leader was wounded and they sent him home. I took over and in my early to mid-30s I’m in charge of keeping young guys alive. I was eager to take on that role and I developed a lot as a leader, but to keep 18-year-old boys alive in combat should not be the task of a 30-something-year-old.”

The Durango Fire District needs volunteers, particularly in the more remote regions of its coverage area, which spans from San Juan County, Colorado, to San Juan County, New Mexico – 350 square miles of mountains, rivers, lakes and desert – covered by 75 full-time staff members and 35 volunteers. For comparison, the south metro Denver fire coverage area, one of the state’s largest, covers less territory but has 700 firefighters.

“We have everything Denver does and much, much more,” Woodmansee said. “I talk to my buddies on the Front Range and try to explain how dynamic the calls are here compared to Denver.”

The Durango Fire District had 6,000 calls last year and that number increases about 7% every year.

A recent house fire near Purgatory Resort highlights the diversity of situations Durango firefighters face as compared to those on the Front Range. The house was on a steep and unmaintained dirt road covered by snow and punctuated with switchbacks. The fire trucks couldn’t manage it.

“We had to send guys on foot up there to get eyes on and then radio down what we needed,” Woodmansee said. “And then we were lucky enough to incorporate the assistance of a neighbor who had a front-end loader with chains who cut a path for us to finally get some rigs up there to deal with it. But I never saw anything like that on the Front Range.”

The majority of fire department calls are for medical reasons, but even fire calls require a medical response. And finding volunteers who fit the bill is no easy task.

“Recruitment is our biggest challenge,” Woodmansee said. “It’s an industry problem nationwide, to recruit and keep volunteers. And we definitely prefer quality over quantity. We want folks that are interested in doing this for a living, and it does not matter to us if you want to do it full time as a career or as a professional volunteer.”

Volunteers undergo six to nine months of training to become the equivalent of full-fledged firefighters. Orientation is followed by a one night a week training program. Emergency medical response certification, kind of a midpoint between CPR and basic EMT certification, is first on the agenda, followed by driving and vehicle operation certification.

Volunteers operate the water tankers that deliver 1,500 gallons to areas without hydrants, then go on to work with regular crews doing ride-alongs where they are paired with a firefighter. Volunteers are not required to get EMT certification but if they choose to it is paid by the fire district from grant money. Firefighter training two nights a week begins after that. There are also required online courses.

“So we provide all of that, and to us they are equals to full-time staff after that,” Woodmansee said. “And all year long we have training opportunities for the staff, and volunteers are permitted and encouraged to attend all of the same training.”

Woodmansee praised the volunteers currently serving with the district, which includes a Dutch man who travels the world working as a chief engineer on luxury yachts; an Austrian craftsman who makes his own tools; and a doctor from southern Mexico.

“These volunteers have an interest in helping out their community and working in a team environment,” Woodmansee said. “This is their tribe. They find something here that might be missing a lot of times out there in the world. And anything the full-timers do, they do as well.”

There are no shortage of volunteers in Durango. The shortage is in the more remote areas like Elmore’s Corner, Bondad, west Durango and the North Valley.

“We have people that get into this line of work because they are fascinated with EMS emergency services,” Woodmansee said in a pitch to would-be volunteers. “They might have in their mind to be a paramedic. The industry is starving for paramedics. Some are fascinated by the fire side. And then we have technical mountain rescue people interested in ropes and knots, swift-water technicians who like to jump in rivers. There’s a place for everyone.”

Staff firefighters earn a minimum of $50,000 and no college degree is required.

Woodmansee was hard-pressed when asked about a harrowing situation he’s faced as a firefighter but had no trouble recalling the greatest day.

“I can’t make this up,” he said. “I was with engine company 64 out of north Metro and we were in Broomfield when we saw this plume of smoke.”

There had been no call over the radio, so the crew called it in and headed toward the smoke. They learned en route that an airplane had crashed into a house. Once on scene, they pulled hose and headed inside to the second floor, where they found a crop duster upside down and on fire in a bathroom. The skin of the plane had burned or been ripped off, and they were looking right at the magnesium engine and an empty cockpit. When they hit it with water, the magnesium reacted by creating bigger and hotter flames. They eventually put it out.

“But there was a guy outside in what looked like an oil field jumpsuit, like our bunker gear,” Woodmansee said. “And my buddy tells me the guy is an off-duty firefighter from south metro. He’s dragging hoses and tells us he did a search of the house and grabbed a couple of dogs. Hero stuff, right?”

The crew mopped up the fire and didn’t find anyone in the house when they heard that the pilot was in the back of an ambulance outside.

“So we go out there and open the door and it’s this guy in the jumpsuit,” Woodmansee said. “And it turns out he is not only a firefighter, but he is also the pilot that pulls banners over Bronco stadium.

“Witnesses said they heard an explosion in the plane’s engine before it inverted and fell from the sky,” Woodmansee said. “But here’s the craziest thing: He used to own the house and now his ex-wife and her husband lived there.”


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