Special Report: What’s Killing Our Firefighters

Duluth Firefighters Remember The Ones Lost To Cancer

It takes a certain kind of person to run toward a fire, to answer a stranger’s call for help.

Firefighters spend their lives putting themselves in harm’s way, and to the general public they almost seem invincible. They come back out of burning buildings seemingly unscathed time and time again.

Fairly new information now suggests the real danger for firefighters is what happens well after the flames are out. All of their heroic actions years ago are catching up to them.

“(In a fire) It’s just dark, you can’t see anything,” said retired Duluth Fire Captain Dane Youngblom. “It’s smoky and hot. You can’t see at all you just crawl and feel.”

Youngbloom spend more than 30 years as a professional firefighter in Duluth.

“It’s the most exciting career you could imagine,” said Youngblom. “You get to help people all the time. What you do for a living is help people.”

You could say running toward danger is in his blood, Youngblom has three brothers that are firefighters too. He found over time, in the worst of situations it doesn’t take blood to become family.

“It’s a great group of guys to work with,” said Youngblom. “I miss it a bit, but you got to retire sometime.”

Despite being in full-fledged retirement, fishing trips are only a memory. Youngblom said he was part of a group of six people that went canoeing every spring for 25 years in a row.

“One of the guys died of cancer, and then another died of cancer,” said Youngblom. “Out of the six of us, five have had bouts with cancer. That was pretty shocking.”

Youngblom considers himself one of the lucky ones, despite his own skin cancer diagnosis a few years ago.

“It’s insignificant compared to some of my friends that died,” said Youngblom. “I feel fortunate that way.”

The reality for his generation of firefighters is that for many, canoe trips after retirement don’t exist.

A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found about 68 percent of firefighters end up getting cancer, compared to around 22 percent of the general public. Research is pointing to the carcinogens released into the air when a modern day building goes up in flames. It’s toxic air that older generation firefighters had no clue to avoid.

“After you go into the fire for several days afterward you can smell it in your hair,” said Youngblom. “Every time you sweat it just keeps coming out of you. It keeps coming out for days and weeks. That’s a sign that it’s not good.”

Today the Duluth fire department is about learning from their predessors past mistakes, taking tough lessons from the ones who taught them all they know.

“I never worked with my dad, but I work with a lot of people who worked with him,” said current Duluth Firefighter Dylan Mills.

“My dad had a tumor on his brain, they were able to operate on it and he battled cancer and its side effects 4-5 years before he died,” said Mills.

A father himself, Mills says he’s still here. He knows there are risks but believes the industry has learned from the loss of people like his father, and are making the right changes.

“This cancer prevention program is a way to honor my dad,” said Mills. “People died from the same situations before him, hopefully that won’t happen anymore.”

Wednesday night on FOX 21 News at 9, we continue part two of our special report. We’ll look at what exactly is causing firefighters to get cancer, and tell you about a new program at the Duluth Fire Department aimed at eliminating the cancer risks.