Eyes on the skies: How firefighters protect Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A typical day passes quietly for Yampa Valley Regional Airport’s fire department, but on-duty firefighters remain vigilant, prepared to spring to action at any moment.
Plane crashes are rare but deadly, and emergency crews have to act quickly to save lives.
“There could be 6,000 gallons of fuel on the ground burning,” said Dustin Williams, chief of the airport’s fire department and safety operations.
In just 90 seconds, flames will burn through the fuselage and erupt in the cabin, endangering passengers who may already be injured from the crash.
That is why the Federal Aviation Administration requires airport firefighters to be highly trained and able to arrive at a crash in less than three minutes.
“If we can get there quickly enough, that buys us more time to knock down the fire so we can do a rescue,” Williams explained.
He has been with the airport’s fire department since 1989, before which he had a long career fighting structural fires for the Yampa and West Routt fire departments.
Five full-time firefighters work at the airport, plus seven part-timers. Like Williams, most started their careers at various fire departments across Routt County.
If any of this sounds like work you would like to do, the airport is currently hiring a part-time firefighter. Those interested can get an application online.
Fortunately for everyone, the vast majority of their day does not include life-saving rescue missions.
Their regular duties include inspections on the runways and around the airport to keep the area free of hazards. A large wildlife fence runs the perimeter of the landing space to keep out larger animals, like antelope and deer, but some intruders manage to sneak through.
“We still get the occasional skunk, porcupine or something like that,” Williams said.
Firefighters also act as a quasi-control tower crew, letting pilots know if it’s safe to land and ensuring no maintenance crews are crossing the runway as aircraft come through.
As Capt. Sean Zwak explained, that job can be a harder than it sounds. Most times, pilots alert him or other firefighters as they approach the airport. But maintenance workers plowing the runway in the winter have had a couple of close calls in the past.
“Twice, they’ve had a Fed-Ex plane be on the wrong frequency and almost land on them,” Zwak said.
He has been with the airport for about 18 years, before which he volunteered for Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue. Zwak enjoys the independence of his job and the regular hours. Most of all, he likes to drive the big trucks.
Parked in the fire department’s large garage on the south side of the airport are two tank-like Rosenbauer Panthers. The fire trucks cost about $1 million each, according to Williams. They can hold 3,000 gallons of water as well as 400 gallons of firefighting foam, like that found in fire extinguishers.
Each has a diesel engine pumping more than 700 horsepower, which can barrel through about two feet of snow during winter rescues.
“If we need to soften the tires up for a better bite through snow or mud, we can also do that from the cab,” Williams said.
A pair of boots sat next to the driver’s door of one of the trucks on Friday afternoon. They belonged to one of the on-duty firefighters, ready to respond within minutes to any emergency.
“All he has to do is come down, kick off his shoes, jump in his gear and go,” Williams said.
Like any first responder, airport firefighters who have worked long enough eventually have to handle heartbreaking incidents.
In 2012, a pilot and a mother of three children were killed in a single-engine plane crash just before the airport’s runway during a winter storm.
Williams responded to the crash and transported two of the victims to the hospital. He still thinks about that day, but he focuses more on the four people — the father and three kids — who survived.
As someone who has seen a multitude of traumatic emergencies, Williams tries to focus on the good he does.
“We’re just going in trying to save all the lives we can save and help the best we can,” he said.
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