Academy firefighters receive medals for Black Forest fire efforts

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Roughly 35 military and civilian firefighters here received Air Force Achievement Medals and Air Force Civilian Achievement Awards in two ceremonies held Oct. 9 and 10 at Fire Stations 2 and 3 to recognize their efforts fighting the Black Forest fire in June.

Academy firefighters helped save approximately 100 structures, including two schools and more than 60 homes, during the most destructive wildfire in the state's history.

"We traditionally receive decorations in our Air Force because we did something for the betterment of the unit," said 10th Mission Support Group Commander Col. Martin Schlacter at the Oct. 10 ceremony. "These decorations are not being awarded for that at all. You were helping secure and protect property that didn't even belong to the Air Force. You're getting the decoration for protecting people who don't even know your names and may not even have known you were there. If that's not the definition of Service Before Self, I don't know what is.

"But we know your names," Schlacter added. "It's amazing what you guys do. We just want to say thank you."

The firefighters received two emergency calls during Wednesday's commander's call. Schlacter said it was important for others in the 10th MSG to see the firefighters' quick response.

"We'll sometimes see a truck parked in front of the firehouse, but we're not usually there when the call comes in," he said. "It's symbolic and it's important for your MSG brothers and sisters to understand what you do."

The Black Forest fire burned nearly 24 square miles, eclipsing the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire. It destroyed approximately 500 structures, twice the number destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire. Airman 1st Class Blake Nelson, a Dallas native, fought both fires: the Waldo Canyon fire erupted just four months after he arrived at the Air Force Academy from technical training at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.

Fighting the two fires was exciting but also nerve-wracking, Nelson said. Flames in the Black Forest fire climbed as high as 90 feet as they jumped from treetop to treetop.

Nelson said the Black Forest fire felt like déjà vu.

"It was, 'Here we go again,'" he said. He added, "It feels good to help out people who live out there and who didn't know whether their house was going to be there."

Nelson said he was grateful to receive the recognition from Schlacter and from others in the 10th Civil Engineer Squadron, including 10th CES Commander Lt. Col. Patrick Carley and Fire Chief Ken Helgerson.

"It feels good to receive something like that," he said.

Helgerson said the experience was priceless for his firefighters, particularly the junior enlisted Airmen.

"That was 20 years of firefighting experience in two days," he said.