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Firefighter recalls early service experience at 2010 Regency Park blaze

James Winsor, a paid on-call Bemidji Fire Department firefighter, relaxes at home. The Regency Park Apartment fire, which occurred one year ago this month, was the first major structure fire of his career. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron1 / 2
On March 22, 2010, the Regency Park Apartments caught fire after someone disposed of smoking materials. James Winsor, a new paid on-call firefighter, was on the ladder truck. Pioneer File Photo2 / 2

The alarm for Bemidji's most recent large building fire - Regency Park Apartments - came in about 3 p.m. March 22, 2010.

James Winsor, one of the Bemidji Fire Department's paid on-call firefighters, recalls the event as his first close encounter with a serious structure fire.

"I was only like about four months on the force," Winsor said Friday. "Regency was the first one I was really close enough to do anything. I was excited. I was nervous."

Two firefighters, Justin Sherwood and Chris Loebs had climbed on the roof of the burning apartment building to cut a hole and vent the fire upward. Winsor was on the rungs of the ladder truck handing hose to firefighters on the third floor.

He said the ladder features a radio, which firefighters on the ground used to communicate with him. He said they told him to stay on the ladder while it was being raised toward the flames.

"They wanted me to spot where (the fire) was traveling, what had been taken over by the fire," he said.

About 125 emergency responders reported to the Regency Park fire, including 43 firefighters from the Bemidji Fire Department. Occupants at Regency Park were evacuated safely and no residents were injured. Three firefighters, though, were injured. One suffered smoke inhalation and was treated and released at North Country Regional Hospital. Two others had muscle-related injuries.

The fire, which is suspected to have started because of discarded smoking materials, began on a balcony and spread on outside walls to the attic area.

Winsor said the Regency Park fire resulted in the Bemidji Fire Department evaluating and restructuring response plans, such as which vehicles should roll for various types of fires and when to call in mutual aid units. Bagley, Blackduck, Cass Lake and Solway assisted in the Regency fire.

During a March 12 practice burn, to which the Bemidji Fire Department invited civilians to experience firefighting techniques, Hoefer said the goal is to get at least one unit out of the Fire Hall within one minute of a fire call. He said they met that goal with Regency Park.

One fire engine and five firefighters, including Hoefer, were all on scene less than 5 minutes after they received the call.

The first wave of personnel from the Bemidji Fire Department who respond to a fire call are career, or full-time, firefighters and dormers, who live at the Fire Hall.

Winsor said he carries his protective gear in his vehicle so he can respond wherever he happens to be when a call comes in.

Winsor said when he was a boy growing up in Minnetonka, Minn., he wanted to either be a garbage collector or firefighter.

"Back then, they were the ones who rode on the back of the trucks - to a little kid, that was pretty cool," he said.

But firefighting won out as a way to help people in trouble.

"And you get to wear that whole suit," he said of the protective gear and breathing apparatus. "I was a little disappointed they didn't have a second floor at the station so I could slide down the pole."

To join the force, Winsor applied and then took a written exam followed by an oral interview and test. There are also physical tests, a series of firefighting simulations that he had to accomplish in 15 minutes. As a member of the Bemidji State University track team - his distances were 200 and 400 meter sprints - and now, a Bemidji High School track coach, he had the necessary strength and endurance for the physical tests.

Winsor said his goal is to become a career firefighter. Meanwhile, he is happy to be a member of the on-call force to learn and gain experience, both in fighting fires and as a first responder and EMT.

"Definitely," he said. "The one thing about being a firefighter, there is an excitement, but there's always a drive to do better. You kind of get addicted to helping people."

Winsor's wife, Angela, is a secretary at Great Northern Claims, and they have a 16-month-old daughter, Rayah. He said his wife was hesitant at first with the idea of his running into burning buildings, but by the time of the Regency fire, she had accepted that firefighters help and protect each other - "They've got your back."

In fact, he said, when she saw his photo in the Pioneer showing him high up on the ladder surrounded by flames from the blazing apartment building, "She said it looked cool."