Sun Valley Magazine features Paul Yelda

Features Paul Yelda in “Out of the Classroom, into the Fire” article.

by Danielle Flam

Oct 15, 2013 – 10:49 AM

Out of the Classroom, into the Fire

In June 2013, the Wood River Valley’s newest firefighter recruits were sworn in as paid-on-call firefighters. With only two months under their belts, these firefighters joined the ranks of Ketchum, Sun Valley, and Wood River Fire Departments to face one of the largest fires in the Valley’s history—the Beaver Creek Fire.

Not only did this fire burn over 111,387 acres (over twice the size of the Castle Rock Fire), and accumulate a cost of $21,517,924, it also created conditions so severe that at the peak of the blaze, the National Interagency Fire Center gave it the highest precautionary warning, Preparedness Level V (PL-5) rating.

These new recruits went through a competitive selection process, including a rigorous physical ability test and exercises, to weed out claustrophobia and acrophobia. Between February and June they logged over 164 hours training with the Fire Academy. They practiced putting out fires in burn trailers, taking cars apart, forcing entry into structures, and cutting holes in walls for escape routes or in roofs for ventilation. However, working in a controlled-training environment doesn’t compare to the real thing.

As one cadet put it, “Even though we see real fire in training, in the back of your mind you know there are ten training officers ready to help out.” Faced with a real fire situation, that safety net is gone and conditions can be as variable as the terrain and weather that create them.

Julie Youngblood thinks it was a great learning experience. “They trained us really well… well, I guess you’re never really prepared, but we were really well prepared.” Getting a chance to cut their chops on the Beaver Creek Fire made for an exciting first year for these new recruits. “We got to face real flames on real structures. This is something people don’t usually get their first year,” Julie explained.

When the call for the Beaver Creek Fire came in, Julie happened to be at the station. Although she couldn’t join the first truck out, she took part in a 24-hour shift later that night. She was shocked to arrive to a structure on fire and be immediately thrown into the mix. Although the excitement abated by the end of the week, as their work shifted from fighting flames to setting up preventative sprinkler systems and patrolling for hotspots, Julie was hooked.

Ketchum Fire Department Chief Mike Ellie, who joined the department in 1985, explained that most of these cadets won’t see flames like Beaver Creek for the rest of their careers. In 2012 for example, of the 861 calls, only 29% of them were fire calls, the remaining 71% were medical calls. The fire calls that do come in tend to be structural in nature. Brush fires, like Beaver Creek, are fundamentally different and require a special type of response from firefighters.

In a structure fire, when your pager goes off, you rush to the fire department, change into turnouts, grab personal protective equipment (PPE) and get on an engine heading to the fire. The first engine usually responds in 60 seconds. When you enter the building, it’s pitch-black. You can’t see your own hand. You’re wearing turnouts with thermal protection, gloves, boots, helmet, mask and carrying a 26-lb oxygen tank. Even though you’re wearing a self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), it still feels hard to breathe. The room might be filled with smoke and heat, so you crawl. Relying on other senses, like touch, you work your way through the building and locate the source of the fire to extinguish or find the person in need of rescue. Time is of the essence.

A brush fire, in contrast, is often out in the open, where flames are visible. You wear lightweight fire resistant clothing, PPE, and lighter weigh boots. Your mobility is improved, but the hours are big, long and hard. Most volunteers serve 16-24 hour shifts. While the hotshot crews are out in the brush, the city’s firefighters are stationed between buildings and the fire, working hard to keep it at bay, clearing breaks, setting up sprinkler systems, and putting out embers that land on roofs.

What both experiences share, however, are the emotions they elicit – excitement and adrenaline, fear and apprehension, energy, teamwork, a sense of belonging and the euphoria that comes with knowing it’s over.

Chief Ellie says that once cadets experience real fire, they are addicted for life. Julie, who originally planned to firefight for 2-3 years, now says she’ll remain a part of the team as long as she’s in Sun Valley. Anja Sundali, a new recruit with Ketchum Fire and Rescue feels that “fighting for our own homes and our town during the Beaver Creek Fire made the experience much more personal,” and as such, feels even more devoted to fighting future fires. “Actually, being on a fire is incredibly rewarding. You feel like you’re doing your part, even if it’s just a little bit,” Julie clarifies.

What’s next for these new recruits? The National Level One Firefighter Certification exam at the end of October. They shouldn’t be too worried; Chief Ellie named this year’s graduating class one of the most exceptional. Because of the nature of the job and the type of commitment it requires, the attrition rate is relatively high.

When asked what it takes to enjoy firefighting, Anja cited a lack of self-preservation and a love of adrenaline: “You have to have something else in your brain saying run into the burning fire instead of away from it. Some people may think we’re nuts, but we need people like this. Let’s just say we have a different outlook on life.”

The overwhelming generosity of community response shows that we are indeed thankful they do.