Paul Yonekawa |

Paul Yonekawa

Full hands

When chimney sweep and firefighter Paul Yonekawa first came to Steamboat Springs some 20 years ago he was impressed with the beauty and the people.

“Even sleeping out of my car, people were so pleasant and friendly,” he said.

Paul had packed up everything he owned in a small two-door sports car and left the metropolis of Philadelphia. He settled in beautiful Steamboat to further his artistic endeavors.

“I used to paint watercolor,” Paul said. “The area was very relaxing and conducive to art.”

Like many Steamboat residents, the aspiring artist turned to several different jobs to make a living, eventually becoming a chimney sweep. He admitted it hasn’t been much of a living.

“I’m probably considered poverty or low-income,” said Paul (a volunteer firefighter, chimney sweep, biathlete, artist, educator and father). “I spend more time giving my time away than making money.”

But his friends and colleagues say while Paul hasn’t prospered financially, Steamboat has prospered tremendously because of his giving nature.

“It seems to be part of his personality to give of himself to others, as you can see with the fire department and anything else he’s involved in,” said Bill Gilbert, longtime friend and fellow biathlete. “He ignores the monetary side for the personal satisfaction.”

Many residents might not realize what Paul does to keep Steamboat’s all-volunteer firefighting crew in fighting condition, nor of his volunteer work within the community.

On this Friday afternoon, the 42-year-old Paul, a former gymnast whose trim body hasn’t seemed to age, is going over the station’s rope rescue tools.

The former firefighter of the year, public educator of the year (twice) and a leadership winner is doing what he loves best: ensuring the city’s fire department is ready to answer the call.

“There’s so much to know and the risks are so great,” Paul said about the work of firefighters. “That’s why it ties me up so much,” he said, trying to explain why he’s constantly seeking new training or trying to identify new equipment needed.

The fire department’s public education coordinator credited Paul with saving the city some much-needed money.

“We’ve been able to put off hiring full-time firefighters because of Paul,” said Jacqui Campell who runs the fire department’s public outreach programs.

“He does tool inventory he makes sure things like safety gear are taken care of and organized. The time he puts in is unbelievable.”

Paul’s specialties include rope rescues and extrication, not to mention the hours he puts into training himself, as well as the public.

“The number of hours he volunteered just for education last year was 85 hours,” Campbell said.

Firefighter Michael Arce works closely with Yonkekawa and calls him a perfectionist.

“He’s just a hands-on kind of person,” Arce said. “He takes a lot of personal time and goes out of his way to make sure we have the proper tools, and comes up with interesting training for the guys.”

Some of his friends almost wish Paul wouldn’t be so dedicated to the fire department.

“He spends way too much time at the fire department,” said Rich Henry, owner of Steamboat Stoveworks which sends Paul chimney sweep jobs. “It’s good for the town, but the amount of time he’s put into that is mind-boggling.”

Henry called Paul “the best chimney sweep in the valley far and away,” but said his friend’s artwork is what’s really impressive.

“That’s where his real talent is,” Henry said.

Unfortunately for the public, Paul has stepped away from his painting and stained glass work, but has “rechanneled” his artwork into the form of scrimshaw or the carving of bones, horns and ivory; as well as historical craftwork.

“It seems like whenever you’re building things with your hands, it’s kind of an outlet,” Paul said. “I don’t consider myself much of an artist anymore, more of a craftsman.”

His friend Bill Gilbert begged to differ.

“He’s very exacting in a number of the things he’s made for prizes for biathlon and for the fire department awards,” Gilbert said.

“They’re pieces of art.”

Gilbert said his historical crafts like quill pens and other items are incredibly accurate.

“He researches what he does; he just doesn’t idly create,” Gilbert said.

Paul’s artistic talents also are spent helping the fire department create puppets for school shows, along with writing scripts.

As for Paul’s early paintings and stained glass, most of the art went out of town or to Europe, but his current scrimshaw and craftwork has been given away to local charities to raise money, or given to groups for awards.

One of those groups is the biathlon competition that Paul now organizes every winter during Winter Carnival, a weeklong celebration in February.

The sport involves cross-country skiing and a black powder muzzleloading competition. In one category, competitors have to wear pre-1840s clothing and wooden skis.

Paul inherited the job five years ago from his friend Gilbert who founded the sport.

“I got involved because of my interest in history and craftwork,” Paul said.

It’s gotten to the point where Paul doesn’t compete any more, because he spends so much time organizing the event.

“I do it for fun and it actually helps the Winter Sports Club raise money,” Paul said.

It’s that dedication to volunteering that has probably kept Paul living in a trailer, rather than a large home in Old Town.

“If I would have put my energy toward making money I could be sitting pretty,” Paul said while shaking his head. “You’ve got to wonder about a guy who’s not into making money.”

Both Paul and his friends credit his wife for keeping things together.

“Meg deserves a tremendous amount of credit for putting up with Paul,” Gilbert said with a laugh.

Paul agreed.

“Truly she’s a saint,” he said.

But Gilbert said Paul must be doing something right, because his two children, 8-year-old Kenji and 12-year-old Yoshi, turned out “great.”

“Another way of looking at someone is by looking at their children,” Gilbert said. “Anyone who can have kids as responsible as his, has to have something good about him.”

In the meantime, Paul isn’t slowing down. In addition to those things above, he’ll continue teaching hunter education and wants to extend classes at Colorado Mountain College where he teaches EMT classes.

“I’m trying to start a fire science program,” said Paul who envisions the college eventually offering a full degree in firefighting.

As if he hasn’t enough to do already.

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