Three hundred firefighters representing 16 districts in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico competed in the annual Tri-State Firemen games in Cortez over the weekend.
Roger Smith Avenue in front of the Cortez Recreation Center was transformed into a timed-event arena lined with hundreds of spectators cheering on their teams.
This year it was the Cortez Fire Department's turn to host the popular games in which teams compete against each other on how fast they can handle various fire-fighting equipment.
"They go to classroom training in the morning, then blow off steam and have fun for the games," said Justin Lindsay, event organizer and Cortez firefighter. "It's a first for me and our committee putting it all together. The logistics are quite a lot of work, but its going well."
The events range from one-man to six-man teams, and competitors don't know what the challenge will be until just before the event.
"It's putting together hoses, and working equipment under pressure as a team, and fast as you can - just like when they arrive on a fire," said Vicky Aspromonte as she timed the racers. "The times get faster and faster as they figure out shortcuts, better strategies."
This year the Gallup Fire and Rescue Department took top honors, beating out local teams Lewis-Arriola, Nucla, Mancos, Rico, and Dolores. As a hosting city, Cortez did not compete.
Last year the Dolores Fire Department won the sweepstakes in Grants, New Mexico, and Mancos took home top honors in 2012. Since 1990, Nucla-Naturita has won the event six times. Cortez last won it all in 2011. Local fire districts won certain events in this year's competition. Mancos won the four-man event, and Dolores had the fastest times for the five-man event.
"Tri-State really benefits rural firefighters who don't have access to training and professional development that large urban areas have," said Cortez Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde. "It is a good tradition that builds camaraderie between districts, and gives us a chance to see old friends and make new contacts."
The classes and certification sessions are free for participating fire-fighters. Hazmat, officer transition, highway safety, extrication, water shuttle, and landing zones are all taught during the training.
A festive beer buzz permeates the games portion of the event. A barbecue chow line wrapped around the tennis courts under sunny skies on Friday.
The competition can get fierce, and the young men sacrifice their bodies for the team, occasionally wiping out on asphalt, and suffering minor injuries in the heat of the race.
"I'd done better if I hadn't sprained my ankle," laughs a hobbled Milan Weimer, of Nucla. He rolled out hoses, connected them, and ran/limped for the finish line in 60 seconds while sporting the team T-shirt that reads "Firefighters: The Real American Idols."
"There is a lot of practice, nobody wants to come out and be embarrassed," Vandevoorde adds as he flips burgers and hotdogs on the grill.
The tradition dates back to 1938, when Cortez first hosted the event as a way to help smaller departments.
"It is more professional now," says Cortez firefighter Kent Lindsay. "Way back when, it would get really wild with fist-fights after close races."
Tri-State offers rural firefighters a working vacation as well, and fills local hotels and restaurants.
Justin Gorman and his team helped rack up points for the Gallup victory.
"It's my first time. We're competing in all the events," he said. "It's a great opportunity to take refresher courses. The Cortez community seems really connected and likes to have fun. The scenery is nice here too."
A portion of the winnings from the sweepstakes will go towards helping pay the medical bills of Jeff Bryan, of the Towaoc fire department.
An accident led to Bryan's leg being amputated this year. His perseverance to recover and return to his post is a testament of his love of fire-fighting, said his wife Tanna Bryan.
"He plans to return to the job. He's so tough, nothing will stop him," she said. "It'll take hard work and time, but he has my support and the community's support."