The Commerce Journal

July 3, 2013

Hamrick: Day as a firefighter fulfills childhood dream

By Joseph Hamrick
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — Do you remember career day at school?

The  top three choices were always astronaut, police officer or firefighter.

I never really wanted to become an astronaut because I’ve seen “Alien” too many times. In space, no one can hear you scream.

So it was always a toss-up when it came to an officer or a firefighter.

I never could decide whether I wanted to carry a gun and shoot bad guys or wield an axe and save damsels in distress from fires.

Well, last Monday I got to work at one of those dream jobs for a day and actually had the chance to fight a fire.

6 a.m. Monday. Woke up, got my clothes on and stepped out the door to drive to the Commerce Fire Department to talk to Fire Chief Jack Berni to begin my day.

I got there just at the changing of the shifts, in time to hear the colorful jokes and to smell breakfast cooking.

When I talked with Berni, he told me one thing is definite when I am shadowing. And that was that I would eat well.

That I did. Bacon, sausage, eggs and buscuits, just to name a few.  

The department has a TV in the dining area, which was tuned in to the recent tragedy in Arizona where 19 firefighters lost their lives in a forest fire.

Everyone went silent as Josh Cato said a prayer before we ate.

He prayed for the food and for the Lord to be with the friends and family of the firefighters lost.

After breakfast, we began our day.

Every morning consists of going through every vehicle in the department to make sure it works and is in the place it needs to be. Everything from headsets and lights, to chainsaws and pumps on the brush trucks were checked and double checked.

Better to be safe than sorry.

I went out on Engine 6 with Gabe Wittkopf and Cameron Foster to check on the water pressure of the fire hydrant’s across town. Then we went out on a building inspection for fire safety.

After that the morning went by with not much happening.

And by not much, I mean nothing.

Some of the firefighters were joking about how slow it was. They said my entire article would be about how all the department does is eat and sleep, and that I would recommend the Commerce City Council to promptly cut their funding.

That didn’t last long.

We got a call about a controlled burn at the Commerce Wastewater Treatment and Solid Waste facility off of Farm Road 3218 that was in small danger of getting out of hand.

After talking with the workers about the burn, they told us they would keep an eye on it and let us know if it got out of hand.

It got out of hand.

Just before I was about to leave for lunch we got a call from the facility again telling us it was now an uncontrolled burn.

I got in the brush truck with Cato. Gabe and Cameron followed close behind. Our sirens blaring, lights flashing and cars pulling over to let us by. This was going to be fun.

We got there and after surveying everything, found out there were two heads to the fire.

Since this was at the waste facility, the smell was atrocious and the smoke was so bad it was hard to see right in front of you at times.

Following Cato through the blackened grass to reach the first head felt much like the scene from “We Were Soldiers” where Mel Gibson was calmly walking through the burned out area all calm, cool and collected. That was cool.

The fire was very slow moving so it gave us ample time to come up with a plan. Since the fire wasn’t heading toward the facility fast, there wasn’t any immediate danger to the area.

And most of the flames were next to the burms, so we had easy maneuverability around the area, except when I fell straight on my back while attempting to slide into the burm.

Cato decided we would wait until the fire got fairly close to the fence surrounding the perimeter of the facility before we put that part out.

One of the dangers of grass and wilderness fires are snakes escaping from the flames. Thankfully, the only snakes we found were already dead, because if we found any that were alive, I would be out of there in a heartbeat. I hate snakes. It’s one of the many things Indiana Jones and I have in common.

I followed Cato around most of the time, and he let me get up close and personal with the fire.

They let me use the fire hose and a tool called “The Flapper” to put out the small flames surrounding the head of the fire.

I’ve been in a house fire before, my parents’ house caught on fire Christmas Eve a few years ago (even with that, it was a good Christmas), so I know how hot a blazing fire can get. But that was only a few minutes. This fire lasted nearly three hours; couple that with the blazing sun and wearing pure cotton long-sleeved shirt, it was hot.

I went through about five bottles of water and three bottles of gatorade.

We got the fire contained and drove around the five-acre perimeter, giving the area one last look to make sure it wouldn’t spread from the burn pile any more before driving back to the facility and updating the workers on the situation.

The fire was dubbed “The Wasteland Fire.”

Soon after we returned we got another call about a tree fire in a field on the corner of Spruce and Division Streets.

We drove out to the scene to find a lone tree in a field, smoldering.

Gabe put it out while Cameron cut it down with a chainsaw and Cato and I dragged the limbs away.

That fire was dubbed “The Hamrick Tree Fire.”

I got a fire named after me. That was cool.

That morning while we filled the trucks up with diesel, Cameron told me he trusted his life to the men on shift C.

After working with them for just one day, I concur with him.

Commerce is in good hands. This is a top notch crew.