Volunteer firefighters put life on hold to help neighbors
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Members of the Gunnison Volunteer Fire Department are pictured at the recent Russell Fire west of Gunnison.
Members of the Gunnison Volunteer Fire Department are pictured at the recent Russell Fire west of Gunnison.

Veteran volunteer firefighter Chuck Haus was tired. The Sunday after Cattlemen’s Days should come as a relief when your children are involved in 4-H Livestock Show and Auction and other rodeo events.

But when “tones dropped” that Sunday afternoon, Haus got a second wind. He packed up and headed out with other members of the Gunnison Volunteer Fire Department to a wildfire south of Gunnison.

“It was hot and smokey, and we were trying to not let it spread any farther than it already was,” Haus said.

Volunteer firefighters such as Haus leave family and jobs, no matter the time of day or night, to respond to the needs of the community. And drought conditions and resulting wildfires this summer have demanded more than is usual from these men and women, their families and employers.

Fire Marshal Dennis Spritzer said this year’s drought combined with recent storms has led to at least five wildland fires starting with lightning strikes. He said the fast response of volunteers has prevented them from growing larger.

“When there’s a fire in the district, they respond right away, hitting them quick and hard so we don’t make headlines,” Spritzer said. “But it’s been very taxing on personnel — it’s tough for volunteers to put in 10 to 12 hours.”

Often the first on the scene, volunteers are responsible to rapidly assessing the situation, determining potential threats to the safety of firefighters and the general public, locating water supplies and performing initial attack.

Haus, who has been on the department for two decades, said his family has grown accustomed to him dropping everything and running out the door.

“You get a second wind, you get that adrenaline,” said Haus. “It’s not easy — it disrupts everyone’s schedule, but we do what we can. They know where I’m going and feel confident that I’m with a whole lot of other guys, and that keeps everyone safe.”

Haus — who owns his own business — said when he’s called out to a fire, he must make adjustments. Projects are put on hold, and his employees do their best to cover for him.

Wildland blazes can demand long days from firefighters. Haus said he spent six hours on the South Beaver Creek Fire following Cattlemen’s Days, and others in the department spent 12 hour shifts on the Russell Fire 30 miles west of Gunnison two weeks ago. He summed up the work as “hot, smokey” and long.

Haus’ wife, Teri, echoed her husband’s thoughts on commitment to the community. She said the frequent calls are just a “way of life.”

“This is what he has chosen to do to serve his community, and we all know that it comes first,” said Teri Haus. “There’s been many a meal that he’s gotten up from and many a holiday that he’s left.”

But, she said, the family understands and supports his efforts.

She noted it’s not just the time spent fighting fires, but the training it takes for volunteers to be properly prepared.

Spencer Nichols of the Ohio City Fire Department has seen his share of wildland fires this summer. Most recently, he was tasked to help fight the Russell Fire.

“We’ve all had a lot more than normal on a year like this,” Nichols said. “There’s a little bit of dread when I hear the tones drop and dispatch calls us out. It’s hard work, it’s time consuming and it takes us away from family, work and everything else.”

Nichols said the sense of serving others is what motivates him as well as the camaraderie with fellow firefighters.

Nichols works for a nonprofit ministry which allows him the flexibility to respond to calls, but he acknowledged sacrifices made by the many employers in the valley who have firefighters working for them.

Buff’s Collision owner Dan Buffington is among them. He’s employed several firefighters over the years. Current Gunnison Volunteer Fire Department member Shane Calkins currently works for him.

Buffington, who himself served as a firefighter for more than 20 years, considers it part of his contribution to his neighbors.

“It’s part of a public service, so we try to let them go whenever we can,” Buffington said. “Everyone that I have ever had working for me — which has been a bunch of them — have always been willing to make up the work they miss if need be.”

Buffington explained that many of his employees work on commission. As a result, when they are gone, they may not get paid.

“It’s a sacrifice they make too,” he said. “We just try to accommodate it the best we can.”

 

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.rourke@gunnisontimes.com .)