Gresham recruits: Proud to fight fires
Jaden Markham was destined to become firefighter in Gresham.
His father is a longtime firefighter with Gresham Fire & Emergency Services, and Markham would often tag along while growing up.
"Knowing what my dad did was cool — I grew up in the fire station," he said.
Markham would spend his holidays celebrating in the station, and would often visit during the week. When he was 12 years old, he went on a ride-along with his father's crew, and saw the positive impact firefighters could have on a community. From that moment, he was hooked.
While attending Gresham High School, Markham joined the Gresham Fire cadet program, where he served until he turned 20. He then joined the Hoodland Fire Department as a volunteer, and earned his Emergency Medical Technician certification.
"I learned there is no slacking in the fire service. It's up to us when someone calls 911," Markham said.
All of it was building toward his dream of working in Gresham.
"Being a firefighter means you are held to a higher standard than other jobs. I take a lot of pride in it," Markham said. "The job isn't just handed out to people, you have to earn it."
Markham achieved his goal earlier this year, after being hired as part of a 13-person recruiting class that is one of the largest Gresham Fire has ever welcomed into its ranks. The new firefighters bring the department back up to normal staffing levels for the first time in more than two years, and is the first group of hires since 2017.
"I wanted to be part of this awesome career," Markham said. "It was like taking on the family name and bearing the torch, a sense of pride and excitement."
Now he serves on C-shift at Station 72 on Kane Drive, and completed his first day at the beginning of the month. Markham is working a 24-hour on, 48-hour off schedule, and on his first day ran 8 emergency calls. He said he is still learning the ropes, but is happy to finally get started.
It was a strange recruitment for the new firefighters. Most interviewed and applied for the role last spring, and were set to join the department much earlier. But delays occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting the ability to run the fire academy and necessary trainings.
The 11 men and 2 women in the class went through official training from November through January, graduating from the academy Thursday, Jan. 28. Their final test was gaining real-life experience during a training burn of a single-family home last month.
"It went very well," said Gresham Fire Capt. Travis Soles, who oversaw the group alongside Training Chief Josh Butler, Lt. Shane Kooch and Firefighter Will Eddy.
Gresham Fire set a vacant building on fire on the property of My Father's House, 5003 Powell Blvd., allowing the new firefighters to get a sense of navigating a tricky series of rooms while maneuvering hoses around corners.
All excelled, officially joining the department's ranks at the beginning of February.
"We are very proud of the 13 recruits as each of them, to a person, met or exceeded our expectations throughout their rigorous three months of training," said Gresham Fire Chief Mitch Snyder.
All are now assigned to emergency response units throughout the community and are serving under the supervision of Gresham Fire & Emergency Services company officers. For the first 15 months they are considered "probationary firefighters," which means their training will be ongoing and they will take on the brunt of certain tasks like cleaning the stations. It is also a chance for them to learn about the culture and standards of Gresham Fire.
"We look forward to getting these firefighters out in the community," Soles said.
Finding a home
Christie Choma never envisioned becoming a firefighter — in many ways it was a profession she stumbled upon.
"I didn't really know it was a job you could get paid to do, and I didn't know anyone in the fire service," she said.
Choma grew up in the state of New York, and her life revolved around a passion for skiing. She attended high school in Vermont, to be near the slopes for continues training and racing, but she never was exposed to different professions.
Eventually, she made her way out to Oregon after college because she wanted to experience living somewhere new. She was mulling a career in public health, working at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and coaching fitness on the side, when one of her friends working for Vancouver Fire offered a new path.
After a few years toying with the idea, Choma decided to become a firefighter.
"It was something I knew I would never be able to let go — once I had the idea I had to give it a try," Choma said. "I thought I had my life figured out, but I couldn't ignore this curiosity."
She volunteered at small departments in Clatskanie and Woodburn, received required certification, and became a part of the 2020/21 recruit class.
"Putting my head down and working really hard is how I have always gotten anywhere in life," the 28-year-old said. "(Gresham) is a department known for being down and dirty and working really hard."
Choma is working out of Station 74 in southwest Gresham.
"I'm really excited to get to know the area and spend more time in Gresham," she said. "Happy to stay close to home and meet the people."
Finding a home was what drew Spencer Tejedas to Gresham Fire.
He joined the department with a wealth of experience and knowledge from a career fighting wildfires.
While attending Oregon State University In 2011, Tejedas started an internship with the U.S. Forest Service as a fish biologist. He was working down in Southern Oregon in the Siskiyou Mountains, when a wildfire swept through the region.
"I went from being a fish biologist to a firefighter, and once that happened, I was hooked," he said with a laugh.
Tejedas spent that summer doing initial attacks on a handful of flares alongside local crews, and at the end of the season, was asked to return the following year. From that point on, Tejedas was a U.S. Forest Service Wildland firefighter.
He worked on a Type 3 Engine through 2015, and was deployed to Colorado, Washington, Idaho, California, and Oregon. In 2016, he moved to Portland with his wife, and was named squad boss with a 10-person hand crew operating out of Hood River and fighting wildfires in the Columbia River Gorge.
Tejedas would be on a 14- to 21-day rotation, and being home only two days out of the month started to wear on him.
"I was talking with my wife and we were starting a family, and being gone so much during the year was bothersome and stressing the family out," he said.
So he turned to the idea of working in a city fire department.
"The more I looked into it and the more it aligned with how I saw my life going. I wanted to be a family man while still fighting fires," Tejedas said.
In 2018, he started the process to acquire the additional certifications needed to make the switch, while still fighting wildfires in the summer. He joined Gladstone Fire as a member of their academy, and graduated in February 2020.
"It started clicking that this is what I want," he said. "Having a department to go to and not being gone for extended amounts of time."
He worked in Gladstone throughout last year, serving 1-2 days a week. The 30-year-old also took the next step at home, welcoming a son on March 10. In the summer, as Oregon was hit by historic wildfires, Tejedas was among those fighting fires in Clackamas County.
"It was a couple days of mayhem — I have never seen that kind of call volume in my whole career," he said.
Now Tejedas brings that experience and passion to Gresham, working in the department's main station, No. 71, at Gresham City Hall.
"With the forest service it was the excitement of the initial call and knowing you have the skills to put out a fire," he said of what drew him to the profession. "But in Gresham, it's also about that connection to community. People look up to you as a problem solver. I'm proud to call myself a Gresham firefighter."
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