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Reach Your Peak campers stand on the Rifle Airport tarmac while listening to flight nurse Jill Stoffels explain how she and her fellow helicopter crew members prepare for emergency medical runs. Photo Kate Lapides

Jillian Bray, left, who attends Riverside Middle School in New Castle, and other Reach Your Peak campers listen to flight nurse Jill Stoffels explain how she, flight paramedic Kraig Schleuter, right, and their fellow crew members prepare for emergency medical runs on Classic Air Medical’s helicopter. Campers spent the day at the Rifle Garfield County Airport learning about aerial firefighting at the Center of Excellence. Photo Kate Lapides

Learning about aerial firefighting, CMC camp visits Center of Excellence at Rifle airport

By Carrie Click

RIFLE – When was the last time you read through a 151-point mechanical safety checklist for an airplane, and checked the plane’s engine mounts for cracks? Or how about the last time you peeked inside an emergency medical helicopter while talking to the crew about rescue missions?

Twenty middle school students at a Reach Your Peak camp got to do that and more when they spent the day recently at the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting at the Rifle Garfield County Airport.

El Pomar Foundation’s Northwest Regional Council has developed Reach Your Peak Colorado, a summer camp program for middle and high school students. The program partners with Colorado Mountain College and several other higher education institutions to encourage students to develop interests in education and future careers.

Rifle’s June camp focused on careers that require science, technology, engineering and math. Called “Five Careers in Five Days,” in the camps students explored such career paths as welding, computer modeling, woodworking, culinary arts – and aerial firefighting.

“This is the Center of Excellence’s first opportunity to host an outreach event with middle school-aged participants since the office opened in Rifle in July 2015,” said Melissa Lineberger, director of the Center of Excellence.  “The primary objective behind the Center of Excellence hosting this event is to partner with CMC to provide educational outreach to local students regarding fire and aviation careers. We’re always looking for ways to involve ourselves and support this community and we see this as a great opportunity to reach out to an audience we would not normally be in contact with.”

A number of local agencies and businesses supported the Center of Excellence event: Atlantic Aviation, Rifle Garfield County Airport, Classic Air Medical, Aircraft Repair LLC, the Rifle Interagency Helitack and SEAT Base Crew, Colorado River Fire Rescue and the DFPC Rifle Fire Engine Crew.

Learning on the tarmac

Wearing bright green shirts, the campers began their day outside Atlantic Aviation’s Hanger 3, with Classic Air Medical’s Bell 407 helicopter.  Their medical crews respond to emergencies – search and rescue, wildfire, avalanche, vehicle accidents and more – from the Grand Junction area to Craig, Glenwood Springs, Denver and beyond.

“It’s a little flying hospital, essentially,” said Reed Clawson, one of two flight paramedics. He told campers how he and crew members – flight nurses Jill Stoffels and Emily Ensminger, flight paramedic Kraig Schleuter and pilot Jack Montou – run shifts and work in pairs to pick up, care for and transport passengers as efficiently as possible.

Kyanna Long, 11, who attends Riverside Middle School in New Castle, asked what the crew’s most dangerous mission has been.

“We always want to be safe,” said Clawson, “but I’d have to say landing on a rock in the middle of a river in a canyon to rescue stranded rafters – that was pretty dangerous.”

Thirteen-year-old Austin Davis was impressed with the helicopter, but for different reasons than you might expect.

“I’d like to build something like this,” he said as he stood in front of the Bell.

‘Great location’ for the Center of Excellence

As the group broke for lunch, in true firefighter style MREs, or meals ready to eat, were on the menu. The afternoon was spent learning what a career in active firefighting is like, whether it’s as a helicopter crew member, a SEAT base manager, or a wildland or structural firefighter.

Visiting the Center of Excellence gave Reach Your Peak participants a well-rounded view of aviation and firefighting careers. Center of Excellence Director Melissa Lineberger and Deputy Director Bob Gann are focused on researching, testing and evaluating new technologies that support effective aerial firefighting, which in turn supports the often intense and rewarding work of firefighters everywhere.

Lineberger, who was the Center of Excellence’s interim director before assuming the leadership of the organization, is happy to be in Rifle.

“I love my job,” said this policy analyst and licensed Colorado attorney. “We have great people.”

Gann, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering, is no stranger to firefighting. He was chief of the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department near Fort Collins from 1992 to 2015. The 2012 High Park Fire, which impacted 80 percent of his department’s response area, occurred during Chief Gann’s tenure.  He joined the Center of Excellence in Rifle in 2015.

“The Center of Excellence is really one of the first research organizations of its kind,” he said. “And Rifle is such a great location for us.”

Colorado Mountain College’s Glenwood Center in Glenwood Springs is hosting several Reach Your Peak camps for middle school students in July. Contact Bebly MacHado-Herrera, CMC summer camp coordinator at 970-947-8357 or bmachado@coloradomtn.edu, or go to www.coloradomtn.edu/reachyourpeak for more information.

A day with the Center of Excellence: What Reach Your Peak campers had to say

Local middle school students recently learned what being an aerial firefighter, an aircraft mechanic, an emergency flight crew member or a wildfire researcher might be like. Here’s what some Rifle middle schoolers said.

“Maybe I’d like to do something like this. It would be cool to help people. I like being exposed to different career options like search and rescue.” – Makenna Thew, 12

“I like learning about the knowledge that they know.” – Ashley Jewell, 12

“It was really hands on.” – Savannah Cook, 12

“The only time I’ve been to this airport was for airshows. I liked seeing the different activities here. It was fun to meet people who are working.” – Karisa Coombs, 13