Fire forged Kristin Curtis.
It killed her brother, burned her mother and landed her mother in a mental institution.
But today, as a wildland firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management and as a probationary firefighter with the Ammon Fire Department, the 33-year-old Curtis accepts fire is part of her life. It’s something she battles mentally and physically, worthy of respect rather than fear.
“Even if I try to stay away from it, fire became a part of who I am,” Curtis said.
A HOUSE ABLAZE
Curtis was 11 when she awoke to her mother’s screams. It was April 1992 and her family’s home in Salt Lake City was ablaze.
She was confused as she got out of bed. Standing up, a thick, rolling cloud of smoke enveloped her head.
“I opened my window and I couldn’t get the screen off,” Curtis said. “At this point the smoke was pretty thick. I was getting more confused.”
Somehow she made it outside to safety. For years the fire haunted her.
After waking up to the fire, the next thing Curtis remembers is standing outside.
Everyone in the family made it out of the house except her 4-year-old brother, Max, the youngest. The EMTs had Curtis draw up a floor plan of the house and mark where Max was.
Max had slept in his mother’s room that night. When Curtis’s mother, Carla Riese, woke up to see flames dancing along the wall and above her dresser, she jumped out of bed. What happened next is fuzzy. The next thing Riese remembers is standing outside of her bedroom with Max still inside.
“It was too hot for me to go in,” Riese said. “I thought about being brave, (but) there is something telling about that kind of heat.”
Riese suffered third-degree burns in the fire that ended Max’s life.
While in the hospital for treatment of her burns, a homicide detective came to Riese’s room to question her about how the fire started.
Fire investigators believed a candle on a dresser may have started the blaze, but the cause still is not considered conclusive.
AFTER THE FIRE
The scars, both physical and emotional, endure. After the fire, a mailman informed Riese that neighbors were spreading rumors she’d murdered her son.
Those rumors eventually reached the children’s school.
“The other kids at school kept telling them that their mother killed their little brother,” Riese said. “It was really hard for them. It was really hard for me.”
While undergoing burn treatment, Riese said doctors found a hole in her heart that required surgery. Afterward, she said a swath of daily medication prescribed to her caused a mental breakdown. Because of depression and problems in her marriage, Riese checked herself into a mental institution.
“I didn’t want to go home,” she said. “There were problems at home. I voluntarily stayed there. I thought maybe I could talk to someone and they would help me.”
THE GRIP OF FEAR
Over the years the family dealt with the tragedy in various ways: Riese moved to Germany in 2002 and remarried. Curtis, inspired by the EMTs who helped her on that tragic night, became an EMT with the Fort Hall Fire Department in 2009.
Her brother, Gordon Curtis, who was 8 at the time of the fire, never connected his sister’s career with the scarring night until he witnessed a car crash in front of his house. As he was running back and forth between the two cars trying to help, it dawned on him.
“I didn’t realize that it tied back to the house fire that we had,” he said. “Going through that experience, it came back in a flood of emotion and made me think of her.”
But Curtis still harbored a fear of fire, always connecting it with that nightmare of a night.
In 2009, she responded to a structure fire with one of her mentors, Jeff Thomas. Thomas was on the roof cutting a hole for ventilation when he fell through the roof. Curtis watched from the street as flames shot up through the hole, swallowing her friend.
“I’ve never had a more sickening feeling in my stomach in my life,” Curtis said.
If Thomas was burned, she would have to take care of him. She didn’t think she would be able to. Then she saw an arm rise above the flames. Thomas grabbed onto the studs in the roof and pulled himself out.
“I almost had tears,” Curtis said. “I couldn’t wait to get a hold of him.”
But the happiness didn’t last long. Curtis was disappointed she was too afraid to face the fire. She vowed then never to submit to the element again.
During the next few years, with the help of firefighter Tony Catt, Curtis started fighting fires for Fort Hall.
Catt, now with the Blackfoot Fire Department, said Curtis is the epitome of what a firefighter should be, but she wasn’t always comfortable with fire.
“Losing her brother was very difficult for her to overcome,” he said. “When we were first putting the masks on her, you could see the fear in her face. She fought through all that and got to the point where she was comfortable. That was a turning point when she realized she could overcome that fear.”
For Curtis, the turning point came later in 2009 while responding to a fire on the reservation.
Inside a house, boxes of ammunition started firing off in the high heat of the fire. The three-person crew employed a “pencil” technique in which short bursts of water are sprayed into a structure fire to lower the temperature. But the plan backfired and the smoke cloud dropped to the floor.
When the fire chief arrived, he called Curtis off the fire due to her inexperience at the time. She retreated to the ambulance and talked with the EMTs. While standing there, she realized the night marked the 17th anniversary of the fire that took her brother’s life. Amid the chaos of bullets going off, and a short-handed team fighting the fire, Curtis realized she had conquered her fear.
This summer Curtis is branching out and fighting wildfires with BLM as well as working with the Ammon Fire Department. Rather than running from fire, she has started to chase it.
“There came a point when I was angry and hurt. For a long time I felt like I was turning my back to fire, trying to hide from it. That moment (at Fort Hall) is when I respected fire for what it was, and that it could kill me or anyone.”