- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) - Madison Whittemore remembers the smell. A strong scent of smoke would drift through the house and her heart would jump.

Her dad was home. Alive.

“That smell meant he was back. I could take a deep breath,” she says.

And there he would be, face covered in ash, no sign how long since his last shower. The Boulder girl inhaled it all, because it meant he was safe - until the next fire.

That was the life of the daughter of a wildland firefighter every summer during busy season. She never knew when her dad would be gone, or for how long, or whether he would return this time.

“My relationship with fire was one of anxiety and fear,” Madison says.

Looking back now, she never could have imagined how that would change. When her relationship with fire shifted, it would take with it the whole picture of her childhood, and spark a new understanding of her dad.

When she was able to transform all that fear into love, everything changed. But the danger remained.

From the pages of Don Whittemore’s in-progress book:

The fire thundered over the house. Toxic air, typical of a burning home - and not the sweeter smoke when pine trees and grasses burn - stung our lungs.

“Let’s head into the garage,” Rod yelled. With fire now consuming the south end of the house, heading to the garage was our only option. There, we hoped to find clearer air since it was on the opposite side of the house from the fire front.

We stumbled back towards a small vestibule, which had a door that led out into the fire, and a second door into the garage. For the time being, the garage was free of smoke. I pulled the door shut and fished my cell phone from my pocket. Selecting Marc’s name from my speed dial, I hit send. One ring then a female voice answered.

Oh crap, I thought, I had somehow dialed my daughter, Maddie.

In a millisecond, I realized I had one of the most difficult decisions of my life to make. Do I tell my daughter good-bye? Good-bye forever.

It seemed probable. Inside a burning house, surrounded by a burning forest, all of my standard structure fire protective gear and air packs out in my truck and inaccessible, and without anyone really knowing where we were and not being able to do much if they did, good bye forever seemed like the only plausible outcome.

It wasn’t.

The structure fire would become one of a list of near-deaths in the firefighter’s life. But the misdial had collided his two worlds: firefighting and fatherhood.

Don Whittemore joined the Boulder Heights volunteer fire department (now Boulder Mountain Fire Department) late in the game, at age 37, and was addicted by the time Madison was 3. He signed up as a way to get outdoors and help manage the stresses of running a business in Boulder.

That choice would shoot his career in a completely different trajectory.

It was his first wildfire in 1996. A lightning bolt struck Boulder Heights. Later that day, another fire near Glenwood Springs took the lives of 14 firefighters.

“The seriousness of it, given an unknown number of fatalities at the time, and seeing how clear everybody was on their priorities, once word came that people were trapped or dead … that clarity of purpose and values really struck home,” Don says.

It resonated more deeply with him than a career in the business world, he says.

“The purity of taking care of people,” he says. “That service for a common good … It was for me, much more aligned with who I was.”

He sold his business. He traded it for fire.

Summers were difficult, Madison remembers.

She didn’t really have a grasp of what her dad was doing. With her June birthday falling in the heat of wildfire season, she could never be sure if he would make it to her party.

“I didn’t know what this thing was that was taking him away each summer,” she says.

She grew more cautious and worried, she says.

When Don was called to an emergency, he taped a picture of his young daughter on the inside brim of his hat.

“It reminded me every time I took off my hard hat,” he says.

He had a 1-year-old son at the time, too. The photos helped keep things in perspective, he says. He knew the risks, but, even more, he says knew there was a bigger lesson to instill in his children.

“It’s being true to yourself. What do you model to your kids?” Don says.

He hoped Madison would grow up to have a life of adventure and think outside the box - “to not be constrained by stereotypes or expectations or what others believe you should do or ought to do. To truly go on your own path,” he says. “In my opinion, that’s the best you can teach your kids.”

He hoped she would absorb it. Although he wouldn’t know for sure how it would affect Madison until she was no longer a kid.

Over the years, Madison grew into a dance instructor and a pastry chef, and her dad continued climbing the ladders of fire, up to the ranks of the assistant chief of Rocky Mountain Fire, the division supervisor for the regional incident management teams and ultimately the deputy incident commander.

Madison enrolled in the University of Colorado, studying psychology and sociology.

Then the Boulder floods of 2013 ravaged the city, and Don was the incident commander. Madison wanted to help, somehow, so she followed him to the command post one day.

She saw the National Guard sending out Blackhawk helicopters to rescue stranded people, and she met several female firefighters who asked Madison if she’d ever considered the career for herself.

She hadn’t. Not even a little bit.

But it got her thinking.

“Could I? Could I do that?” she said. “They planted the seed.”

Maybe it was in her blood. Maybe it was in her upbringing. Maybe it was just a coincidence. But Madison couldn’t escape the pull of the flames.

“Fire came into my life at a point where I really needed something. I needed to see myself as someone who was strong and capable, and I think it gave me permission to step outside the box I had put myself in,” she says. “I had a very set idea of who I was and what I could do, and by picking something so opposite, it was very freeing. It let me rewrite the story a little bit.”

She enrolled in a class in the fire academy that winter, and by the next summer, she had traded her careers in dance and baking, transferred her college studies online - now fueled by the desire to understand how society thinks and functions in the state of disaster - and moved to Rapid City, S.D., as a member of the U.S. Forest Service Black Hills Fire crew in the Mystic Ranger District.

She was 21 when she experienced her first wildfire. Her crew had to watch the fire all night while it burned out, because of poor road access and its close proximity to residential property.

Now 22, she has signed up for another summer in South Dakota.

On one hand, it’s humbling and awe-inspiring to be so close to something so powerful, nature’s most aggressive forces, she says.

And in that, she says, she allowed herself to feel strong.

“I never gave myself permission to do something or feel bold before,” she says.

Last summer, responding to fires on the West Coast, she says she nearly got called to work with her dad, who is now retired from Rocky Mountain Fire and serves as deputy incident commander for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team 2A. He also teaches internationally.

If things had lined up, he would have been her incident commander, guiding his daughter out into the flames.

Now that he no longer works on the ground, the emotional tables have flipped a little; now he’s the one thinking about her safety. Especially with today’s wildfires, which are growing increasingly less predictable and more dangerous, he says.

Only now, underscoring any fear, is a deep bond, a new understanding, Madison says.

“For me, it was a really beautiful sense of closure for my childhood of finally understanding what it was about fire that drew him in so much,” Madison says. “I understand that he felt called to something higher. And it’s hard to explain that to a 3-year-old when you’re not at her birthday party.”

But the very thing that confused her as a child is what has now made their relationship even deeper than she ever imagined it could be.

“Despite the risks,” she says. “He understands. He gets it, and vice versa. I know why he did it then, and he knows why I’m doing it now.”

There are different kinds of risks, and the physical risk of fighting fires is obvious. But the risk of living your whole life without living your purpose is even greater.

That’s the real heroics, Madison says.

“My dad is my hero because he has always been there for me and showed me what chasing your dreams looks like,” she says.


Information from: Daily Camera, https://www.dailycamera.com/

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