John Watson portrait

John Watson portrait. Photo by Lee Wilson

John Watson is a man of intense drive and energy. His willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done right is evident throughout his career.

Watson grew up in a business oriented household; his father ran a successful copier business. It was expected of him to join the family business after graduating High School, and he studied business and accounting, but always felt he was being pulled in another direction. Ever since he was young, Watson had held an interest in fighting fires.
“It was out of dumb luck that it happened,” said Watson. “I was talking to a guy who was a potential client, and how we got on the subject of fire-fighting I don’t recall.” I told him I wish I would have done that and he said: ‘You know you can still have your day job; you can be a volunteer’.

Watson started his career as a volunteer fire-fighter.

“I’ll never forget my first fire,” he said. “It was a wildland fire, not a structure fire. I remember going and thinking that these guys were supermen. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see, and I didn’t think I would be able to do this.”

Despite the challenges presented by fighting fires, Watson was hooked. He went on to help with several fires around Natrona County and the State of Wyoming. Then the Columbia Space Shuttle crashed in 2003, and NASA requested the help of firefighting crews to help them clean up the debris. He spent a total of 46 days in Texas assisting with shuttle recovery work.

“My fire career started off with a piece of history,” he said. “I think that by the time we were finished, we recovered about 87 percent of the shuttle. NASA was great to work with. I remember one thing that was particularly interesting was a piece from one of the leading edges of a wing. You could see where the metal had liquefied.”

As we learned from NASA, even one piece the size of a quarter could be the critical clue that indicates what happened, said Watson. Astronauts were there every night talking to us and answering any questions we had. I even got to put on one of their $250,000 space suits.

Watson knew that his passion was being a fire-fighter. He describes his first year as “Baptism under fire”. When shuttle cleanup in Texas was complete he went to California to fight fires, which kept him busy into late fall. He worked on the crews battling the Cedar fire, which claimed more than 280,000 acres, 2,820 buildings, and killed 15 people (including one fire-fighter) before crews contained the fires. The Cedar fire was one of 15 fires in California in 2003, and was the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history. It threatened the city of San Diego, which was where John’s crew was based.
Fire on that scale is referred to as a plume-dominated fire.

“Crews would make progress in the mornings and then the Santa Anna winds would come up and blow it all up again,” said Watson.

In November, it started to rain and Mother Nature finally put out the Cedar fire. His crew was primarily tasked with steering the fire around neighborhoods and structures.

“I knew immediately I was very honored to do what I loved,” he said. “Fire-fighting was really what was in my heart. You know the saying: ‘If you do something you love you’ll never work a day in your life’. Well, that’s how it was for me and fire-fighting. It was a very busy first year.”

John was certain that he wanted a career fighting fires. He decided to go to school to get his Fire Science degree, while still fighting fires in the local area. John also took classes in biology and pre-med, as well as EMT courses. “As I started to get into the medical side of things, I found I had an affinity for it.”

After completing his Fire Science degree at Casper College, Watson applied to the University of Wyoming to get his Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology.

“I knew that I wanted to get into the medical field after I was done with fighting fires. Firefighting is the greatest job in the world, but it is a very physically demanding job. You can’t do it forever. You can get into administration to finish your career, but that is not what I was interested in doing. Stem cell research was fascinating to me. After losing a grandfather to heart disease, I started thinking about how we could do more. How we could do better. I told my dad I was going to stop fighting fires and pursue a degree in medical research.”

A fire near Midwest introduced Watson to the Wyoming State Helitac program.

According to Watson, as a shot in the dark, he and a fellow Fire Science student talked to the Helitac team about jobs and based on his qualifications and experience he was asked if he wanted to give it a try.

“That was a dream for me — to be able to get on the aircraft.”

Watson then went back to school for training to be able to work on the helicopters. He learned everything there was to know about the aircraft, from the mechanics to how to fly them.

“You have to really understand how fires work,” said Watson. “We were constantly training. This is a profession that can kill you. It is a part of my life that I miss, but I’m very fortunate to have been a part of the Wyoming State Helitac. It is a first-rate program. I would be lying if I said I didn’t still miss it to this day.”

After a conversation with his ailing grandfather in which he told Watson he was worried about him, that he was worried he’d never had a family and imparted the wisdom that when he was old that would be all that mattered to him, Watson decided his life should be made of more than firefighting.

“I didn’t realize it at the time but my grandfather’s statement stopped me in my tracks,” he said.

“I went from Mr. Career Fire-fighter to about to be married in a short amount of time. Then we had a baby on the way. The day my daughter was born I gave into the pressure.”
John decided to leave the Helitac program to stay home with his family. “I would have missed the first six months of her life. I loved my career, but I loved her more.”

John now faced the challenge of finding a new career that was more conducive to family life. He had a fire science degree and a lot of qualifications, but nothing that would land him a good family-man job.

“My EMT background was the only practical thing I had for the outside world, away from fire. So what could I do? I wanted to be able to work nights and spend time with my daughter during the day. I decided to get my CNA degree to see where it would take me. After getting my degree, I started working in a facility. Within two months’ time I knew the facility wasn’t for me.”

John had learned of a company in town doing in-home care. He was introduced to a family who had specifically requested a male caregiver. John and the client had a lot in common and it was a good fit.

“I was able to see that there was a lot I could do to help this guy. My fire background served me well because of the attitude it gave me. Let’s try. Let’s give it everything we got. I was able to help him and make a real impact on his life. He had just retired but was not able to enjoy a single day of it.”

Good old-fashioned work paid off. John thought that after one year with this client, he would move on.

“I feel like I made a difference, and I can say that with absolute humility It’s the attitude that you need to be able to adapt and overcome. Try with every ounce of your being.”

“I loved my job again, and it was great. My day mattered. Every day. This was the only other place [besides fire] that I got this feeling.”

Within a short time, John was running a crew of in-home care providers. He started to get calls from other clients requesting his care services. Casper Care Solutions was born. Within a short amount of time, John and his partner took on several clients and had a large team of caregivers.

To me, success is measured in the quality of the care we are providing”.

“I have been in the trenches so I have that unique insight into the job,” said Watson. “When you are in charge of a fire crew, you are their support system. It’s no different now. This job is just as critical as it was in fire. When we are taking care of someone, their life is in our hands for a period of time. You’ve got to bring your A game. I bring the same attitude and responsibility to this as I did to working in fire.”

In a period of rapid growth in the company things didn’t go as well as Watson would have liked. The quality of care slipped, according to Watson, but he’s taking great measures to get things under control and wants to extend an invitation to former clients.

“Anyone who has had a problem with Casper Care Solutions in the past, please contact me. I want to make things right as well as learn from our mistakes. I want a chance to rectify things.

I definitely feel like I have come full circle in my life, both professionally and personally. I will always be immensely proud of my fire-fighting career. It was a great opportunity to be able to serve. Now I have two daughters and this new path affords me the opportunity to have a family and be involved with them. I hope I am building them a legacy for my daughters to continue. It has been a great trip and I feel blessed to have had these experiences.”

Lee Wilson