Big Sky hosts internationally touring Firefighter Combat Challenge
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – On a hot, smoky Saturday in Big Sky, Jeff Bolton, battalion chief for the Big Sky Fire Department, hoists a 42-pound bag up a 49-foot-tall tower in front of the Wilson Hotel in the Big Sky Town Center. Bolton, outfitted in 50-pound firefighting gear head-to-toe, is finishing up the first leg of a relay at the Scott 3M Firefighter Combat Challenge.
The competition was founded in 1991 by Paul Davis, a physiologist and former firefighter, who sought to offer firefighters a competitive opportunity to maintain the physical fitness their occupation requires.
Thirty years later, more than 50 firefighters hailing from Big Sky to Boca Raton, Florida—and several places in between—sweat it out in the Wilson Hotel parking lot Aug. 13 and 14 for the challenge’s 510th challenge.
Shane Farmer, a firefighter with the Big Sky department, has been competing in the challenge since 2006 and started advocating for establishing Big Sky as a challenge venue when he moved to town in 2018. This year, the department and the Wilson Hotel presented the event to Big Sky for the first time with the help of several community sponsors.
“The firefighters in the fire service are really passionate about health and fitness,” Farmer said. “We definitely consider ourselves occupational athletes, because the tasks that we have to do are just so athletic in nature.”
Big Sky resident Robbeye Samardich stood with her kids and friends on the event sidelines on Saturday, cheering for the hometown team. “We think of them as heroes,” she said, “but we don’t really ever see what they do … It’s nice to have an activity to really show our support for what they do for us.”
Farmer said one value of the challenge is the visibility it provides to the public.
“For the community to be able to see us do that in a safe, competitive arena, I feel like that gives them added confidence in the members of their community that their tax dollars are paying [firefighters’] salaries, and they get to see it firsthand,” Shane said.
The challenge course consists of five events, each meant to mimic a component of a firefighter’s job. Competitors begin by running up five steep flights of stairs carrying a hose pack. At the top of the stairs, they hoist a 42-pound weight attached to a 7-pound rope from the ground to the top of the tower.
Next, competitors practice strength used in forcible-entry scenarios by pounding a 160-pound steel beam five horizontal feet with a shot mallet. Competitors then run a slalom course, grab a hose and drag it through two saloon doors before shooting water at a target. The course finishes with a victim rescue, where competitors must drag a 175-pound mannequin to the finish. This grueling course has earned a reputation for what Men’s Journal magazine called “the toughest two minutes in sports.”
The first day of the challenge in Big Sky, competitors ran the course individually. The following morning, the event took on a relay format. Firefighters grouped up with their departments to compete in tandem teams as well as larger relay teams. To kick off the Saturday event, firefighters and their families also competed in the relay.
Representing Big Sky, Farmer, his wife Amanda, their 4-year-old son Maddox, and 2-year-old daughter Lennox competed in the relay against the Briggs family from Florida to kick off the team contests.
Firefighter crews followed the family fun, bringing a quicker pace and ambitious energy to the course. In the relay category, the Big Sky Fire team claimed 3rd place.
Capt. Mitch Hamel with the Big Sky Fire Department competed in individual, tandem and relay competitions.
“I think [what I liked about the challenge] was taking the skills we do every day when we respond to an emergency and putting them in a fun atmosphere and being able to go as hard as we can and show the community what we do when we might come to your house,” Hamel said.
Between the fist bumps, hugs and family-like banter, the only way to tell the teams apart were the labels on their uniforms. Many competitors said this family-like camaraderie is what makes the challenge so special.
“We’re competing against each other, but at the same time we’re all supporting each other,” said Cody Ferris, a member of California- based Team Travis and a firefighter with the Travis Air Force Base Fire Department.
Perhaps the greatest showing of support was for Bill Christiansen, 65, from Lansing, Michigan. Though Christiansen is retired, he continues to compete to stay in shape and enjoy the friendship.
Clad in suspenders patterned with flames, Christiansen ran the course several times throughout the event. It doesn’t matter how old you are, Farmer, 45, said. When you show up to a fire, the conditions don’t change depending on who you are.
Farmer said they hope to bring the event back next year, and with it another chance for the community to come out and support their local first responders.
In one of the event’s final runs, Farmer stood atop the stair tower in full gear preparing for the next round. His son Maddox watched in wonder among a group of friends and community members. He lifted a small hand in the air and pointed to Shane, pride stretched across his smile. “Look!” he shouted. “That’s my dad!”