If you were to compile a list of major disasters, both human- and natural-caused, over the past four decades, Northland Pioneer College Fire Science graduate Howard Carlson can probably say he was there. No, not as the event happened, but in the aftermath – part of the national Incident Management Team charged with returning life to near normalcy.
Carlson’s unselfish service to his community was recognized at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Navajo County Community College District Governing Board when he was awarded the Outstanding Alumnus Award for Fall 2012.
For 33 days, he was part of the recovery team at the World Trade Center following the 9-11 attacks. In late September 2005, he was in the devastated Gulf Coast guiding recovery efforts after Hurricane Rita, the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. In the spring of 2003, he was assigned to collect debris from the explosion of STS-107 – the space shuttle Columbia – in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Sometimes the “incidents” were closer to home. On June 11, 2010, a small plane, loaded with fuel and four passengers, crashed into the Round Valley High School just a few short blocks from the fire station he helped design and build with his volunteer crew of firefighters.
As a Fire Management Officer (FMO) with the U.S. Forest Service and member of the Arizona All-Risk Management Team, Carlson has battled major wildland fires throughout the United States and closer to home, including Rodeo-Chediski, Three-Forks, Nuttal Complex, Potato, Shultz, and, in June-July 2011, Wallow that lapped at homes on the outskirts of his adopted community of Eagar.
How this Winslow native began a 32-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and 40+ years in the fire service is “the rest of the story.” After graduating from Winslow High, Carlson served a four-year enlistment in the Navy, with two of those years stationed in Japan. Upon discharge, he was offered a “temporary 30-day job planting trees for the Forest Service” that turned into a career. In 1978 while stationed at the Chevelon Ranger Station, approximately 42 miles south of Winslow, Carlson figured a few fire science classes would help him learn the best way to battle structure fires and with the paperwork.
“I’d get off work at 5, rush home where my wife Anna would have a sack meal ready for me to eat while driving to class in Winslow. The class would go from 6 until 10, then another hour’s drive back home. It made for some long days, but I got through it,” noted Carlson. He even carried a full load for a couple of semesters. Advisers convinced him to seek an associate degree. “There was the required ‘Career Awareness’ course. I kept telling them I didn’t need it – that I already knew I wanted to be a firefighter, but they made me take it anyway. The class proved I had chosen the right field,” he chuckled. He finished his degree in 1981 and is believed to be the first NPC student to earn a Fire Science Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree.
The NPC courses provided valuable management and report writing skills he still uses today. “I’ve never been good at English, but I still use the things from (Dr.) Gene Luke’s Technical Report Writing class in writing grants and reports.”
Shortly after completing his degree, Carlson transferred to the Springerville District as the Fire Management Officer. He volunteered with the Springerville Fire Department and was named the assistant chief in 1983. In 1985, he was asked to serve as the Eagar Fire Chief, going full-time shortly before his retirement from the USFS in 2001.
“The station was half of an old Quonset hut and we had a 1946 Sitgreaves engine (still used in parades) and a 1965 International engine. When the town sold the building out from around us, the Sitgreaves was stored in my carport and the other engine in the impound yard,” he recalls. When he became chief, the department had 10 volunteers, who would also train at his home.
In 1986, the volunteers built the first portion of the current station, adding on training rooms and larger equipment bays in recent years. Carlson’s was the first area department with fulltime crews, with paid firefighters also serving as the community’s parks maintenance crew. There are also 25 volunteers on the department.
“It is a win-win for us since the firefighters built the adjacent Ramsey Memorial Park,” which is loved by children of all ages. “We poured over 700 yards on concrete in the park,” noted the chief. “The park also helps reinforce our fire prevention efforts in the schools.”
He encourages his volunteers to complete the college’s Firefighter I and II courses, although it is a mixed blessing. “I love to see them do better, but it also means they will probably leave the area for better paying firefighter positions.”
With over 30 years of structural firefighting experience and 40+ in wildland fire suppression, Carlson tells those interested in a fire service career that it “requires dedication. You have to know the job well enough to be safe,” he emphasized. “Training is most important to keeping yourself out of trouble. It is a lot of work, but it is also very rewarding.”
Early next year, Carlson will be retiring as Chief of the Eagar Fire Department, closing another chapter in his 40+-year career in the fire service. He plans to return to his hometown of Winslow, to be closer to his two brothers and son, who is a Department of Public Safety officer in Flagstaff. A grown daughter lives in Colorado and works in the medical field. For now, he does not plan to give up the Incident Management job, although this past summer he turned down over 17 calls.
“It’s time to relinquish the reins. It has been a rewarding 40+ years. I have no regrets,” added Carlson.
“I’ve known Howard for over 20 years. He’s the kind of guy who just wants to get the job done and done right the first time,” wrote Mary Nuttall, who nominated Carlson for the NPC Alumnus Award. “It is not about the praise and recognition he receives, although he accepts humbly and it is well deserved. When he does accept recognition it is usually for the ‘Team’ and everyone who helped him,” she continued. Nuttall has been with the Eagar Fire Department for 18 years, the last six as a paid firefighter/administrative assistant. “This is one of the best jobs I have or ever will have and that is because of the Boss – Howard Carlson.”
Melissa Webb, manager of NPC’s Springerville/Eagar Center who assisted with Carlson’s nomination, said “Howard is an integral part of our community, always sharing any recognition with his firefighters and now’s our chance to recognize the influence he has had on others, in part due to his degree from NPC.”
As the Alumnus Award recipient, Carlson will receive mementos of the college, a tuition gift certificate and a plaque recognizing his selection.
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