VIFR stairclimb event battles diseases

Vashon Island Fire and Rescue (VIFR) acting chief Mike Kirk’s advice for anyone taking part in the annual Scott Firefighter Stairclimb at the 76-story Columbia Tower in downtown Seattle March 2 is “Don’t start off too fast.”

The climb supports research in cures for leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

It’s a long haul up, and climbers need to pace themselves, said Kirk.

Besides the height, there’s also the weight.

Clad in full bunker gear and breathing apparatus collectively weighing about 50 pounds, firefighters ranging in age from 18 to 60 will sprint-climb 788 feet in vertical elevation (1,311 stairs or 69 stories) from the Fifth Avenue lobby of the Seattle skyscraper to the 73rd floor observation deck.

At 943 feet, about one-and-a-half times the height of the Space Needle, the Columbia Tower is the tallest building (by stories) west of the Mississippi.

Of the 1,200 or more participants, 16 or 17 will be from Vashon, with others coming from all over the United States as well as from some foreign countries.

Sponsored by Scott Health & Safety, which describes itself on its Web site as a world leading designer of high performance respiratory protection systems and other life-saving products, last year’s climb attracted 1,253 firefighters from 200 fire departments and raised more than $365,000 through community-based fundraising campaigns leading up to the competition.

The city of Buckley Fire Department in Washington raised $36,407 for top honors among departments during last year’s competition with its chief, Alan Predmore, raising $10,477 for top honors among individuals.

And Buckley’s population of about 4,500 is a little less than half of Vashon’s.

David Sova, a member of VIFR and captain of the Vashon team, said it’s his dream one day to rise to the Buckley rank in contributions.

For this year, Vashon’s goal is $5,000, although Casey Westphal, another VIFR member, said he’d like to see that number surpassed.

Westphal, who is a volunteer firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT), said that he did his first stairclimb last year.

“A couple of the guys were doing it, and they were giving me grief,” he said, but he didn’t decide to do it until his father Ron was diagnosed with leukemia at age 72.

“When I found that out,” Westphal said, “there was no way I couldn’t do it.”

Westphal’s father, who is this year’s Vashon honor patient, is doing as well as can be expected, Casey Westphal said.

Because of his low white cell count, “He’s not supposed to be around people with sicknesses,” his son said, adding that it also means he now can’t go the St. John Vianney Catholic church, something Ron Westphal and his wife Kay have done for many years.

But the senior Westphal was a runner for many years, and his heart is in excellent shape, his son said.

“I got him a shirt last year, the one I got for finishing the climb, and it was a surprise. I didn’t tell him I was going to do the climb,” Westphal said. “He wore it the first day he went to get therapy for the leukemia.”

Jason Everett, a career firefighter/EMT, described the climb as “brutal, brutal.”

“It’s not the weight, it’s the heat,” he said. “It has nowhere to go. It stays in your clothing. You sweat like crazy. It’s something right for badass American firefighters.

“What’s cool is that many firefighters come from all over, hanging out,” he added. “We have a lot in common. You network and build camaraderie.”

Everett and Westphal are both training, using the step trainer in the basement training room at Station 55 on Bank Road.

Other VIFR members committed to the climb to date are Charlie Krimmert, Michael Rugg, Belgium Maza, Berlin Maza, Johnathon Hedden, Josh Pizzano, Jesse Abercrombie, Eric Doughly, Don Huffman, Sean McCarthy, Andrew Facchini, Josh Munger and Lucas Ridinger.

How to contribute

Islanders who want to contribute to the climb can do so at

As of Monday, the team had raised $1,630, about 33 percent of its $5,000 goal.