Big Sky Fire raising funds for leukemia, lymphoma

By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – For the second year running, Big Sky firefighters are taking steps – literally – to raise awareness and funding for leukemia and lymphoma research. On March 8, three of Big Sky’s finest will again climb for cancer.

The Scott Sports-sponsored Firefighter Stairclimb, held in the Columbia Center in Seattle, Wash., draws firefighters from around the country to one of the nation’s largest fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. During the 2014 event, 1,800 firefighters from more than 300 departments raised nearly $2 million for LLS.

This is Mitch Hamel’s second year competing and he will join his Big Sky Fire Department colleagues Mike Bakke and Jordi Viladas in the 24th annual event against more than 1,900 racers, but this one is even more special, Hamel says. The trio will climb in honor of Allistair Anderson, a 5-year-old girl with leukemia, whom they connected with through Eagle Mount-Bozeman.

“She’s been battling cancer since she was 21 months old,” said Hamel, 32, adding that LLS will hang posters of each honoree in the Columbia Center stairwell during the climb. “The entire time you’re climbing you’ll see all those faces and people who’ve been battling the disease. It’s really a cool reminder of why you’re there.”

The Firefighter Stairclimb is an event that will make those who live on a 10th floor feel lucky. Or even a 30th floor.

The Columbia Center is the second tallest building west of the Mississippi, with 69 flights containing 1,311 steps that rise 788 vertical feet from the streets of downtown Seattle. Competitors, who must be union or volunteer U.S.-based firefighters, wear full protective outerwear called turnouts as well as oxygen tanks, and the gear weighs up to 70 pounds.

“You’re standing outside and looking up at the Columbia tower going, ‘Holy cow’.” said Hamel. “You get your mask on, put your helmet on … and run into the building. You’re nervous and excited, but once you hit the stairs, it’s go time.”

Finishing the climb in just over 18 minutes last year and placing 311th, Hamel says his goal in March is to come in under 15 minutes. Bakke, 27, finished 195th at 17:02, and Viladas, 25, is in his rookie year with BSFD, a firefighter with the Bellingham, Wash.-based Marietta Fire Department last year.

Missoula firefighter Andrew Drobek came in first each of the last two years. In 2014, he finished in 11 minutes, five seconds.

Hamel says preparing for the stairclimb is an inherent job duty as a firefighter.

“We train year round to stay fit for the community, [so] we’re ready to go today if we had to,” he said.

On Jan. 18, Hamel, Vildas and Bakke held a fundraising demonstration in front of Roxy’s Market in Big Sky, toting a stair mill from the station. Climbing in full turnouts and oxygen tanks, the firefighters climbed in 20-minute intervals continuously for five hours, answering questions and raising community awareness.

“It went really well,” Hamel said. “People were receptive and we raised over $1,000.”

Last year, BSFD raised approximately $5,000 for the event, a respectable number, Hamel says, but far from where they hope to be this year. The Boise Fire Department led all Firefighter Stairclimb fundraising efforts in 2014, amassing $78,500 for LLS.

The Boise department sent more than 50 firefighters to compete in the stairclimb in 2014, and each raised money for their station. According to Audra Daniels, LLS’ Senior Campaign Manager for the event, fundraising is ranked per capita for context.

“Obviously you can’t compete [in fundraising dollars] if you have a team of two or three,” Daniels said. “[BSFD] came in 23rd per capita out of 323 teams last year.”

The Big Sky firefighters are in the process of planning more fundraising demonstrations, and have their sites set on a date around President’s Day weekend, from Feb. 14-16, though negotiations on the venue and exact date are still underway.

“What the event is for and what it represents is an amazing cause,” Hamel said. “The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is really at the forefront of research for all cancers right now.”

Call (406) 995-2100 for donation information.