Flathead Valley firefighters train for stairclimb fundraiser

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Ben Graham, left, and Don Thibert, firefighters with Kalispell Fire Department Station 62, train for the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb to be held at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle on Sunday, March 11. The event raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and climbs 69 flights of stairs and 1,356 individual steps in the second tallest building west of the Mississippi River. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

When everyone else rushes away from an emergency, firefighters are often the first ones rushing in to help.

“Firefighters do so much for others and they don’t ask for anything in return,” said Aja Estrada, with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Estrada is gearing up for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s biggest fundraising event of the year ­— the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb. The stairclimb is a source of pride for many firefighters who compete not only to push themselves physically, but also to raise money to support the mission of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Estrada said supporting local firefighters’ fundraising campaigns is unique way to give back to them for all they do.

The stairclimb attracts firefighters from all over the globe to ascend Seattle’s tallest building, the Columbia Center. In 2017, the event featured almost 2,000 firefighters from more than 330 departments and nine countries.

Montana firefighters are known for being some of the top competitors.

Firefighters from five Flathead Valley fire departments are taking part in the stairclimb on March 11, including Kalispell Fire Department firefighters Don Thibert, Adam Cliffton and Assistant Chief Jon Campbell.

“It’s something most fire departments around the nation know about, and our department has consistently participated,” said Thibert, the Kalispell team’s captain.

The teams of local firefighters will be suiting up into their full structural gear to climb 788-feet of vertical elevation. Their boots, pants, coat (liner intact), helmet, gloves and breathing apparatus combine to weigh more than 50 pounds.

They will climb 69 flights of stairs with a total 1,356 steps to reach the acclaimed observation deck overlooking the city.

Firefighters must be on oxygen the entire time they climb.

“It’s very demanding. You have to pace yourself, especially wearing 50-plus pounds of gear that doesn’t allow you to cool down,” Thibert said.

“You also want to regulate your breathing because you don’t want to use too much air. Most people try to get through the event without switching their air bottle out,” he said.

While most firefighters finish scaling the building in about 30 minutes, Thibert has finished the event in half that time. Last year, Thibert’s time was 14 minutes 10 seconds. He finished 32nd out of 1,796 competitors. The Kalispell Fire Department team has a third-place finish and a fifth-place finish, and consistently place in the top 10 teams. “Our department in general is an athletic department,” Thibert said. “We live here because we like the outdoors and being active and I think that shows.”

Keeping fit is also important to avoid on the job injuries, he added.

Flathead Valley’s neighboring firefighters to the south are known for dominating the competition. Missoula firefighter Andrew Drobeck came in first place at the event last year, finishing the climb in 10:58.

“The level they are competing at is pretty incredible. Everybody wants to beat them,” Thibert said.

People share their Leukemia and Lymphona stories with the firefighters at the event each year. Thibert said he met several small children who were undergoing treatment for leukemia and lymphona during the 2017 the stairclimb.

“Seeing them cheer you on, giving out high fives and keeping such a positive attitude while they are going through a hard situation is a pretty neat thing to see,” Thibert said.

Thibert’s noticed a progression in the way leukemia and lymphona is being treated through out the years he’s participated in the stairclimb.

“It’s a huge motivator when you can actually see the improvements over time and see how it’s really helped people out,” Thibert said.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society staff member Estrada said she gets nostalgic just thinking about the stairclimb.

“These firefighters are proud of what they do. They literally get in the zone. You get goosebumps watching them,” Estrada said.

Last year’s climbers brought in a record $2.4 million for blood cancer research and patient services. Estrada said the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is on track to break another fundraising record this year.

“Donating to local firefighters really makes a difference,” she said. “They are part of history in the making.”

Reporter Breeana Laughlin can be reached at 758-4441 or blaughlin@dailyinterlake.com.

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