Colo. recruits graduate after battling Waldo Canyon fire

The Waldo Canyon fire is the worst in Colo. state history, killing two people and burning 346 homes

By Ryan Maye Handy
The Gazette

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A few days before a class of 22 Colorado Springs firefighter recruits was scheduled to graduate in June, they were pulled into the worst wildfire in Colorado Springs' history.

When the Waldo Canyon fire started June 23, the trainees of Colorado Springs Fire Department Fire Academy of 2012-2011 were awarded their badges early, without a graduation ceremony, and put on engines on the Waldo Canyon firelines. On Tuesday afternoon, nearly two months after the fire started, they got a chance to celebrate, after having fought alongside their colleagues during the fire and meeting President Barack Obama.

The fire, which burned 346 homes and killed two people became the worst in Colorado history and made for an unforgettable start to the recruits' fire department careers, said academy graduate Richie Rodriguez.

"Suffice it to say, I had this planned a little differently," said Rodriguez, who delivered a speech about his class to an audience of lieutenants, captains, chiefs and family members at Radian Church, at 4020 Maizeland Road. "We come to the Colorado Springs Fire Department at a crucial time in the city's history," he told his classmates.

For Fire Chief Rich Brown, who also spoke at the ceremony, the Waldo Canyon disaster ranked among the most memorable in the department's past 26 years of fighting fires. Previously, the fire department counted the deadly 2007 Castle West Apartment building fire and the blizzard of 1997 among the worst disasters it has faced. The June wildfire was something the department had long dreaded; the night fire blew up, on June 26, mandatory overtime was issued for all firefighters, and the recruits became a part of the effort in the coming days.

"You were asked and pressed into service," Brown said to the graduating class. "You were asked to hit the ground running and I know you have," he said.

In addition to receiving congratulatory remarks from Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, the class of 21 men and one woman received encouragement and praise from one their instructors, Lieutenant Bill Hull. Andrew Faulkner received an award for Academic Achievement; Zach Blair, who did 31 pullups in a row during training, won an award for Physical Performance. Jason Jones received the award for Outstanding Trainee, an overall award for test scores and physical performance.

In a movie prepared by the fire department's filmographer Steve Schopper, the recruits recounted some of their best and worst memories of their 14-week training program, which began March 26.

They all agreed that Hull made for a profoundly intimidating coach. "He looks like he could rip your arms off," one firefighter said.

They also gave some fitness advice to future recruits: "Start doing some cardio now. And get really comfortable with sweating."

And the best way to be prepared for a long day of firefighting? "You better eat your dog-gone Wheaties!"

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