Heat is off: Mark Davidson retires after three decades as a firefighter

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By Vicky Gits

During his 29 years as a volunteer firefighter in Evergreen, Mark Davidson was something of a superman, logging the equivalent hours of a professional firefighter doing the job practically full time.

At his peak, Davidson responded to 500 to 600 calls per year for five years. When he got married, he cut back to only about 400 and still had time to raise two boys and hold down a job running the family insurance company, Davidson Insurance Agency.

“The thing is, I put in a lot of time and a lot of years. But I got a lot more out of it than I put into it,” Davidson said. “Where else can you have this much fun for free?”

He was also a leader among firefighters and became a lieutenant on the force after two years. Actually, he became a lieutenant a month earlier than the rules allowed, but decided at the time not to contest the early promotion.

When Chuck Lewis was made the first paid chief in 1985, Davidson served as his assistant chief for three years. When Lewis left and the department returned to an unpaid chief for a leader, Davidson became volunteer chief from 1988 to 1990.

He was the operations chief for the Hi Meadow Fire in 1999. He also fought the Hayman, Buffalo Creek, Snaking, Black Mountain and Cherokee Ranch fires, among others. He was the incident commander at the Fountain Gulch Fire at the Hidden Valley Exit on Interstate 70.

Davidson had other jobs as training chief, rescue chief and dive master. He served at the chief rank for 22 years, including assistant chief, operations chief, training and rescue chief. He was instrumental in compiling the reorganization plan adopted in 2005.

“Mark was extremely dedicated to teaching other volunteers by example and by designing various training opportunities. I just kept hearing over and over how good he was as an incident commander on the scene of fires or rescues,” said Chick Dykeman, president of the Evergreen Fire Protection District board.

“Davidson was a huge part of that organization. ee He stood out as a mover and a shaker,” said Mike Piper, a former Evergreen firefighter who is now fire chief in Glenwood Springs.

Piper gives Davidson some of the credit for bringing the ambulance service under the fire department umbrella.

“If something needed to be done, he would get in there. He was courageous. People looked up to his expertise and his leadership,” Piper said. “He was a fixture. I would bet Mark has saved many lives.”

“His biggest strength is his common sense and calm demeanor in a stressful situation,” said Tim McSherry, director of emergency management for Jefferson County. “It was comforting to walk into a crisis situation and know Mark was in the room. His presence was reassuring to everyone around him. He had the experience and the common sense.”

In honor of Davidson’s outstanding participation since 1979, the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department staged a recognition ceremony July 28, at a regular meeting of department volunteers. Dykeman presented a plaque on behalf of the board and also dedicated Fire Station No. 3 to Davidson, where a permanent plaque bearing his name will be placed.

In addition to Davidson, three other recent fire department volunteers were recognized at the event: Kenny Erhardt, 23 years; Dave Christensen, 11 years; and Terry Perkins, 10 years. Last year the board dedicated the Rescue 2 truck to Erhardt.

Weighing opportunities

For a guy who has been on the force for nearly 30 years, Davidson is a relatively young 50 and doesn’t look like he’s ready to joing the over-the-hill gang. His enthusiasm for the fire department and fighting fires also seems undimmed.

So why is one of Evergreen’s most experienced and enthusiastic firefighters hanging up his boots?

“I was slowing down,” Davidson told the Courier. “I wasn’t running as many calls as in the early years.”

He tore his ACL when he was skiing in February and had knee surgery, so he couldn’t respond to any fire calls for several months.

“I did an experiment and turned my pager off,” he said.

So how did that feel?

“I missed it some, but not like I thought I would. I miss it when I hear there has been a good call. I miss not being a part of it. I miss the people more than anything.”

Davidson announced his resignation at the end of May and turned in the letter in June. He is still getting accustomed to not having a fire-department-related event to attend in the evening.

“I stopped and thought, ‘What do I have to do tonight?’ Now I still stop myself during the day. And what I have to do is nothing,” Davidson said.

He is unsure whether he will volunteer his name as a replacement for the departing Jaine Hamilton, one of the five members of the board of directors. Hamilton decided to move to the Western Slope for a new job and has announced her resignation effective Oct. 1.

Davidson won’t necessarily play more golf in retirement, because he already plays three times a week. He is a member of Hiwan Golf Club and has played in Scotland three times and Ireland twice (he has a 3 handicap).

Among the speakers at Davidson’s retirement party were his son, Ryan, 23, a private first class in the U.S. Army who is likely to be deployed to Iraq in the fall.

“My brother and I grew up in the department, and we want to thank you for everything,” Ryan Davidson said. “I especially want to thank you for watching my dad’s back for 29 years.”

Davidson’s 20-year-old son, Tyler, is a student at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Their mother is the former Peggy Kernohan, who was a firefighter when Davidson met her on his first night on the job. They were married for 13 years.

In the ‘80s the fire department sponsored a dive team, which has since disbanded, and Davidson served as the dive master. He spent a lot of time under the ice training other volunteers but never got to perform a real ice rescue.

The training came in handy when a midnight call came in saying a dump truck went off Highway 103 and into Golden Reservoir, at the upper entrance to a construction project where people were working around the clock to enlarge the lake.

The driver appeared to be trapped. When Davidson got there, witnesses said the driver had surfaced and gone underwater again. Davidson had to go out at the end of a rope and grope around in the blackness.

“You can’t see your hand in front of your face.” All of a sudden he bumped into the body. “It was probably the worst experience of my life,” he said.

A memorable fire

The fire at the Evergreen Hotel in the mid-1990s that nearly took out the Little Bear was the most memorable.

“It was just one heck of a fire,” he said. “The reason I remember is, when I came around the corner, there were flames 50 feet above the Little Bear. It was the the most spectacular thing to see that amount of fire on Main Street.”

It was a Sunday evening about 8 o’clock.

“They had evacuated the Little Bear. There were about 200 intoxicated people standing in the parking lot, and they were all screaming, ‘Save The Bear,’ ” Davidson said.

“One of the guys was at Fire Station 1. As soon as the call came in, he grabbed the first engine. He did exactly the right thing. He went past the fire and on to the hydrant by the drive-in bank and laid hose. That left Main Street open for the rest of the equipment. ee I took the hose lines in the front of the building. I was happy because that was the best job on the best fire.”

Davidson remembers going back and forth with the hoses between the A-frame next door and the Little Bear. Eventually there were about 10 hoses spraying water.

The fire was traced to a plumber’s torch that had been used in the hotel remodeling. It heated up one of a beam near a pipe, and the fire started a couple of hours later.

That feeling of saving a building or saving a life is hard to replicate in any other pursuit.

“I like what I do for a living,” Davidson said. “But I don’t get a huge adrenalin rush.”

The closest call was a house fire in which Davidson and two firefighters suffered facial burns after entering a house that hadn’t been properly ventilated.

“We all came out with burns, and I learned a lesson,” Davidson said. “Make sure to double-check when somebody says a house is ventilated.”

Since he couldn’t join the fire department at age 13, Davidson joined the Alpine Rescue Team and stuck with it for 10 years. Before graduating from the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley, he applied to join the fire department.

A lifelong Evergreen resident, Davidson’s interest in firefighting was spawned by his father, Hal, who was a 25-year veteran of the volunteer fire department.

“I thought the guys on the fire department were pretty cool.”