By Jim Kuiken
When I first got off of active duty with the Marines in 1977, I moved back to my family home in Boise Idaho, and like a lot of transitioning veterans, struggled finding some work. I’d fixed toilets at a local hotel, worked in a carwash, bussed tables at a restaurant, and even got a job stacking bricks coming out of the outdoor kiln at a brick-making company.
Luckily for me, my grandfather, who was an executive in the state government got word that there were some openings at the Idaho State Correctional Institution (prison), and I was able to get a job there as a Correctional Officer – my first law enforcement job. I did end up getting in with the Ada County Sheriff’s office later…but finally, I got word from my father Bob Rose, who was Deputy Chief of the Boise City Fire Department (not to be confused with my dad, Gerrit Kuiken), that the Department would be hiring.
After going through a long process, I finally did get hired into my dream job as a 3rd generation Boise City Firefighter/EMT, only to be laid off a year or so later when the city went through budget cuts. I was devastated, and ended up going back to my old job as a Correctional Officer for a while, before I finally got hired on with Whitney Fire Protection District (now a part of Boise Fire), which was the district surrounding Boise’s jurisdiction. I was a firefighter / EMT again!
While Whitney was similar to Boise FD in many ways, it was not a full-time fire department. It was a paid / volunteer department, which meant a skeleton crew were full-time paid firefighters who manned the two stations and drove the equipment to the fires or incidents, while the volunteers (including off-duty paid firefighters) got paged, and would respond in their own vehicles to the scene, get suited up, and go to work under the direction of the on-duty firefighters and leaders.
It was a much more rural setting than the city, so a lot of the incidents were vehicle accidents, medical emergencies, small structure (house) fires…and mutual aid call-outs for grass fires with the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies who oversaw large sections of public lands. Being a small department covering a large geographical area, we actually were much more busy than I had been on the Boise City FD, which handled a lot of similar incidents, plus the larger commercial buildings in the city.
Summers were always busy because of all the grass fires and people out on the roads after having partied up at the lake, and then trying to drive home. Lots of vehicle accidents.
One summer was particularly busy, especially on the 4th of July, where all the trucks were out for over 24 hours, going directly from one fire to the next…and sometimes having to let a fire burn for a while because we were already at one, or when we had to stop and get more water because the trucks were empty. I remember many days when I was on foot, sometimes for hours, with a five-gallon water sprayer on my back, pumping the little hand pump at the end of the hose / nozzle, squirting water on the small spot fires and trying to keep them from spreading. That was exhausting, dangerous, and very hot – with the summer heat and all the fire and soot all around.
However…on one fairly large brush fire, I was riding on top of our little Brush Truck (an older version of the one pictured above), standing just behind the cab, and my job was to take the high-pressure hose (like a large, inch and a half, heavy duty red rubber garden hose), and as the truck drove along the edge of the fire line (on the upwind side, as close as possible), I would spray the edge of the fire line. The hose didn’t put out enough water to drown the fire (the truck only carried 200 gallons, so we had to really conserve what water we had), but it came out with such high pressure that it literally blew the fire out, while wetting the area.
The reason we drove fairly quickly along the upwind side, as close to the edge of the fire line as possible, was so that we could knock down as much fire as possible as quickly as we could, and still stay upwind so the flames weren’t coming at us, or burning us…since we were right next to the fire (only a couple of feet away), which could be a small line of flames, or as in this case when the grasses were higher, a wall of flame. It was still pretty hot that close to the flames, so I was wearing a full turn-out firefighter suit, gloves, and helmet with the face shield pulled down to protect my face from the intense heat. Then things got interesting…
As happens a lot up in the Boise area out on the open BLM grasslands…there was a sudden gust of wind or small dust-devil / twister that blew through, reversing the direction the wind was blowing in a concentrated burst. It blew a huge wall of flame over the truck…with me standing up in the back, and the flames came in under the front of my face shield, up across my face and into the helmet. The heat was so intense, it was like standing in front of a blowtorch with the high-pressure flame pointed right at you.
I remember banging the top of the cab with my fist so hard, that I ended up having to explain the big dents in the roof to the Chief when I returned to work a couple of days later – but not that day. My partner who was driving immediately veered away from the fire line, helped me down off the truck, and poured cold water over my face and front of my head as we waited for the ambulance. It had burned the hair out of my nose, my eyebrows and eyelashes were gone or singed, the left side of the front of my hair was burned away…and my face and forehead were already starting to blister in several areas. All in all, it wasn’t one of the better days, but it wasn’t too bad…unlike a lot of other first-responders, I survived the incident, could still see and breath, and returned to work in just a few days.
Not only that, all my fellow firefighters, being the way firefighters are…were all so full of sympathy and understanding, as they complemented me on my new look – asking me about my makeover and fashion sense, with the lack of eyebrows, the new hairdo with no hair on the front of my head, the “botox” I’d had to get those puffy lips…what a real bunch of great guys…