He Won the Fight: One Night Before His Retirement, Captain Patrick McJunkin Fights One Last Fire
A hero can be anyone; even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy's shoulders, to let him know the world hadn't ended.
As the smoke started to rise, filling the air of the Wolf Creek subdivision in Casper, Captain Patrick McJunkin of the Casper Fire-EMS department took a deep breath, put on his gear, and prepared himself to do the thing that he's been doing for the last 25 years.
Tomorrow, McJunkin is retiring from his role as the Captain of Casper Fire-EMS. There will be a ceremony held in his honor, with his friends and family in attendance, as well as community members who want to pay respect to a man who has built a legendary career out of saving lives and fighting fires.
But that's tomorrow. Tonight, he's got one last fire to fight.
So he got to work.
It wasn't a large fire, and it could have been a lot worse. When Casper Fire-EMS were alerted to a grass fire in the Wolf Creek subdivision in west Casper, they responded immediately. The fire happened in a field and it engulfed approximately 16 acres. Had it spread a little more (and it very easily could have; it was a very windy night), it could have burned down a church and countless homes.
Luckily, Casper Fire-EMS and numerous other responding agencies, under the direction of Captain McJunkin, put the fire out in less than an hour.
"As always, it's really gratifying to be a part of a team that comes together and works like that," Captain McJunkin told K2 Radio News. "All the credit to all the responders there tonight, including all the fire agencies and law enforcement agencies that helped with evacuations and our dispatch center that got all the proper resources going. I'm always in awe of the crews that I have the good fortune to work with."
McJunkin has been working with incredible people all throughout his 25-year career in firefighting; a career that, at first, he wasn't even sure he was going to pursue.
"I actually started down the road of television production," he reflected. "I had been working with some fire crews and we were actually producing a promotional video for a fire department here in the state, so I got to spend some time with firefighters and it was was always something that I had kind of been interested in. It just seemed to be a really gratifying career; a really great thing that you get to do, finding ways to get to help people. And I think that opportunity where I got to spend time with firefighters really gave me the opportunity to see what they get to do day-to-day."
That day changed everything for McJunkin. He said at that point in his life, he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life and once he had the opportunity to see what these men and women could do, the people they could help - that was the moment that sealed his fate forever.
McJunkin went back to school and got his degree in fire science. The rest, as they say, is history.
And it's a history steeped in tradition and dedication. Being a firefighter is hard. Movies and television shows tend to romanticize the career (thanks a lot, Kurt Russel in Backdraft), but McJunkin says it's a lot less glamorous than media portrays it to be. Especially when it comes to actually fighting the fires.
"For me, it was something that I never expected, because I think a lot of our perceptions about what being inside of a burning building is, is a lot like what we see on television," he stated. "And that was a real eye-opener for me going into the fire service, because it was actually nothing like that."
McJunkin said that when you're entering a burning building, you're completely deprived of your senses.
"Basically, your vision is taken away from you because of the smoky environment," he said. "That's one of the things that they teach firefighters right away, is how to navigate structures that you've never been in before. You go into that structure at two o'clock in the morning with zero visibility and you need to navigate to, first and foremost, find any potential victims, but then also locate the fire and extinguish that."
McJunkin said that, as to be expected, the structures are really, really hot. He said the temperatures in an environment like that can range from two to four hundred degrees, all the way up to 1400 degrees, in just a few feet.
"So, it's the hot environment and the lack of senses," he said. "You learn to use other senses, like hearing and touch and things like that to navigate through those conditions. It's definitely something we train for consistently, and we just try to do our very best at performing in those environments."
It's a hard, often thankless job. There are a lot tough lessons to be learned, but there are a lot of fruitful ones too. McJunkin said the biggest lesson that he's learned is to, well, never stop learning.
"There's always something and always a way that you can learn to do something better, to help out better," he stated. "And it really is a career long, a lifelong, philosophy. My guys are teaching me things as I'm going out the door 25 years later. You never know absolutely everything that there is; there's always something that you can learn that can make you just a little bit better each day. That's been the truth for me: every single day, right up to the day that I'm retiring, I'm learning something new."
And if there was ever a group of people to learn from the most, it's the people that he had the benefit of working with over his decades-long career.
"I'm always just in absolute awe of the people that I've had the good fortune of working with," he said. "Seeing what they do every day, and the good that they do in the community and how hard they work and how dedicated they are; I just can't say enough about them. Each and every one, from the people that were here when I started to the people that are here as I'm leaving, they've all done so much for me. And I have learned something from each and every one of them along the way. And it's just been an amazing experience. They're just such great people."
And, needless to say, they would say the same thing about him.
Firefighters are a different breed. Firefighting is a different line of work. It's not something that you clock in at 8am and clock out at 5pm. It becomes ingrained in your life and, with that, your coworkers really do become your family. And it's that family-like atmosphere, it's his brothers and sisters, that Captain McJunkin will miss the most.
"I just can't even tell each and every one of them how much they've meant to me and how much I'm gonna miss them," McJunkin said. "That's probably the most difficult thing for me in leaving this career, is leaving the people that are here. It's a family, it really is. I always say that our families at home loan us to our family at the fire stations. And it's just a really great atmosphere to work in. They're men and women working together every day to lift each other up, just to learn and train and be prepared to do our very best."
Because in this line of work, it has to be their best. There's very little room for error. Their decisions can literally mean life or death. It's a heavy job, and it's one that not everybody is suited for. But Patrick McJunkin was suited for it. He was...he is...one of the best.
Though he's retiring from the fire department, that doesn't mean he's going to be spending his time drinking margaritas on a beach somewhere. Actually, McJunkin already has another job lined up.
But he'll tell you that part later.
McJunkin likes working. He likes being of use to his community, which is why it shouldn't have surprised anybody that on his last night with the fire department, he would be tasked with fighting one last fire.
"Certainly it's an interesting exclamation point on a 25-year career, to have a fire on the last night that I'm here," he laughed. "But it also kind of emphasizes the dynamics of the career itself; that you just never know what you're gonna get with the fire service."
McJunkin may be leaving the department, but he'll never be too far away. And he wouldn't have left if he didn't think the department would be just fine without him.
"Casper's in good hands," McJunkin said. "Casper Fire-EMS, and the other fire agencies and law enforcement agencies for that matter, and our dispatch centers, and our paramedic partners at Banner Wyoming Medical Center - all the people that are involved in public safety - Casper is in just great hands with these dedicated and professional individuals. These are people that are willing to go above and beyond; they're just extraordinarily talented people. I'm just in awe of them. And if I had one message, I would just say that you are in great hands with all of these agencies that are here for everybody in Casper and Natrona County every single day."
Firefighters are heroes; this is something that most can agree on. They burst into burning buildings, risking their lives to save the lives of others. It doesn't get much more heroic than that. All that's missing is the cape and the cowl.
But here's a secret, one that only the true heroes among us actually know: being a hero isn't about being faster than a speeding bullet, or more powerful than a locomotive. It's not about being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. In fact, let's tell the truth and shame the devil - it's not even about saving lives. To be a hero is to realize that the small things matter just as much as the big ones; that a simple smile is just as important as the saving of a life.
That's something that Captain McJunkin realized early on. And it's the one thing that he wants his team to remember when he's gone.
"A lot of the gratification comes from the very simplest calls, where you just get the opportunity to go to somebody, who didn't know who else to call today, to help them with what might seem to be the most insignificant problem," he said. "But, to them, you can literally change their day just by being there with them."
And maybe that's Captain McJunkin's biggest superpower, his greatest gift. When Casper needed him, he was there. That was true on his first day, and it was true on his last. On the last night before he was set to retire, he answered the call one last time. He got on the truck for one last ride. And as the fire burned, he readied himself for one last fight.
He won the fight, and he proved that a hero can be anyone.
To celebrate Captain McJunkin's retirement, the community is invited to stop by Station 3, located at 2140 East 12th Street on Thursday, August 11 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.