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Columbia Falls first paid firefighters look forward to serving community

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | January 5, 2023 7:35 AM

By CHRIS PETERSON

Hungry Horse News

The Columbia Falls Fire Department saw a historic milestone at the end of 2022, as it welcomed its first-ever paid firefighting force.

Jade Thomas, Ryan Smith and Brad Peterson saw their first day on the job Dec. 27.

The three all have extensive experience as volunteers with the department.

Peterson has 24 years with the department and was the assistant chief before taking one of the paid positions. Smith has been with the department for 13 years and Thomas two years, but was also a wildland firefighter with the Forest Service for six years as well.

Peterson joined the force when fellow firefighter and neighbor Ed Perkins invited him on a call.

“I went with him and got hooked,” Peterson recalled in a recent interview.

Smith’s interest in firefighting came from his father, Joe, who served 36 years with the department. Joe Smith passed away in June. Ryan recalled going on calls with his Dad, sitting in the truck as his Joe fought blazes.

For Thomas, she joined the force after a fire call to her own home — the basement filled with smoke. As firefighters checked out the scene and cleared the smoke, Thomas got to chatting the firefighters as she wanted to get more calls in as an Emergency Medical Technician. She later joined as a volunteer.

All three said they greatly enjoy being firefighters as volunteers, so transitioning to paid staff has been a career goal.

Peterson and Smith were co-workers in their previous job working in the boiler plant at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber.

All three have had memorable calls over the years. Peterson said one of the most memorable was one of his earliest — when a rock fell off the Going-to-the-Sun Road and killed the driver of the car, but left the victim’s wife, who was sitting next to him, almost unscathed.

Smith said one of his most memorable calls was a wildland fire in Browning a few years back in the winter. They filled railcars full of water in Columbia Falls to fight the blaze near town.

Browning had no water left — they had used it all to fight the blaze.

“You couldn’t get a cup of coffee at Town Pump,” he recalled.

Another memorable call for Peterson and Smith was when the high school caught on fire in the summer. Firefighters were able to contain the blaze to the foyer. Peterson remembered other schools at the time had lost entire buildings, so it felt good to save the school.

Thomas said one of her most memorable calls was a a head-on collision on Highway 206. She said she was able to utilize all her training and put it to practice.

“It was a really cool feeling,” she said.

The city is financing two of the paid positions through its 3% resort tax, while the third position is funded through the rural fire department.

While the firefighters will work normal daytime shifts, they’ll also respond to after-hours fire calls in district or if there’s a second page out of district.

Volunteers will still be critical to force, they noted. All three said they look forward to working with the volunteers. The department is in good shape with volunteers, Chief Karl Weeks said. It currently has 25.

But the city also needs full-time help as the volume of calls increases, especially in the summer months when the tourist traffic arrives. With three paid staffers, they can man a truck and be out the door in minutes on a call, be it a fire, accident, or other emergency.

In December alone, the department saw 57 calls for service.

Peterson recalled a call just the other day when a woman had a gas leak at her home. Firefighters were able to clear the home of gas and she was able to get back into her home without having to find a place to stay.

“It’s pretty rewarding,” he said.

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