June 24, 2013 Updated: June 24, 2013 at 4:23 pm
Steve Schopper went from melodramas on the stage to real-life dramas, giving people a front-row seat to the two most destructive wildfires in Colorado history.
Schopper, an audio/visual specialist for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, recorded firefighters risking their lives to save homes during the Waldo Canyon fire in northwest Colorado Springs last year and then again this month during the wildfire in Black Forest.
His videos have been seen by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people - not too shabby for a man who is comfortable in front of the spotlight, albeit a different kind.
You see, Schopper started out as an actor, appearing in commercials and doing "a ton" of theater work and musicals growing up in Kansas City, Kan. He has also done modeling and appeared in film, including "Comes a Horseman," a 1978 film starring Jane Fonda, James Caan and Jason Robards.
While he loved acting, as a young man Schopper had planned to follow in his father's footsteps and become a dentist.
Visit to city changed plans
But a visit to Colorado Springs in 1974 when he was in his 20s changed things.
"We were at a convention here at The Broadmoor," Schopper, 60, said during an interview in his studio at Fire Department headquarters on Printers Parkway. While touring the area, they happened upon the Iron Springs Chateau.
"So, we decided to have dinner there. I was doing a lot of acting at that time, too. We went in there and saw the melodrama and I went, 'Wow! I'd love to do that.'"
Schopper talked with the director, who said an actor was leaving and asked Schopper for his resume.
"They hired me, so I worked for 17 years as the villain."
In 1976, Schopper joined the Manitou Springs Volunteer Fire Department, where he remains with the rank of lieutenant.
After working about two years as a firefighter at Fort Carson, he got a full-time job with Manitou. Then in 1990, he joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department as a code inspector. Late, he got into the education department, heading its clown and puppet program.
"I was like going, 'Wow! I'm living large.' I'm doing two of the things that I loved to do the most. One is firefighting and the other is acting," he said.
Schopper still dresses as a clown when he volunteers with the Global Health Initiative and travels to Peru or Belize to teach people about basic hygiene. He said he takes the Fire Department's gold badge stickers to hand out to children.
"I even have pictures of them standing there in the jungle in their bare chests with one of our Fire Department stickers over their heart. They love these little stickers. These things are gold down there. They're like, 'Bombero, bombero,'" he said.
When he joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department, Schopper was running an advertising agency on the side.
"I was the in-house agency for the Hungry Farmer restaurants, so I was doing a lot of camera work and then I was writing the commercials and having them produced," he said. "I would direct the commercials, but I would never operate the equipment back then. I would just tell the program operator, 'I want you to do that spinny thingy and then we'll move on.'"
When the Fire Department built a TV studio at its complex on Printers Parkway, Schopper, because of his acting and advertising experience, was tapped to run it.
"I was blessed by surrounding myself with people who knew a heck of a lot more than I did," he said.
Schopper said he doesn't have a lot of technical expertise but is learning. He said his expertise is more in the creative process.
"If you're advertising the Hungry Farmer restaurant with a chicken on your shoulder, you've got to be a little creative," he said, laughing.
Before the Waldo Canyon fire, Schopper went to major incidents, such as high-angle rescues, HAZMAT situations and major structure fires, to record them for training purposes.
"There have been occasions when I've actually caught the arsonist at the fire because they were watching the fire," he said.
"When I pull up on a scene, my first thing I do is I don't shoot the fire. Everybody is drawn to the fire. I shoot the crowd. I shoot the audience. I try and get the big picture," he added.
Waldo fire brought him fame
The Waldo Canyon fire thrust Schopper into the limelight.
"The next thing I know I'm talking to Wolf Blitzer on the Situation Room about the fire," he said.
Schopper wanted to make his video public immediately, but officials delayed the release for a few days over concerns that homeowners hadn't seen the damage.
"I went down on my knees, literally, begging Tommy (Smith). He gave me a hug. He was almost crying with me and he said, 'We'll get your video released,'" he said, of the then-deputy fire chief.
Schopper said he wanted the public to see firefighters saving homes after seeing nothing but homes going up in flames for days.
When he arrived on the scene, the first thing he saw was Engine 18 battling to save a home.
"As soon as I saw that, I went, I know exactly what I'm doing with my video. I am going to document structures saved. That's what the media has not shown. They've gotten tons of destruction on the outside, tons of photos of homes going up. I don't want that. I'm tired of looking at that. I want to see homes standing. I want to see firefighters doing their jobs and doing ."
Schopper stops. He chokes up. There are tears in his eyes.
"Sorry, I get a little emotional," he said. "But I want to see them doing their jobs and doing their jobs well, and I want the public to see that."
The video went viral, offering not only Colorado Springs but the world an up-close look at firefighters in the middle of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.
That is, until the Black Forest fire destroyed 511 homes and killed two people.
When the latest fire threatened to cross city limits, Schopper grabbed his camera again.
"The similarities were frightening," he said. "Basically almost the same time, almost exactly a year, two fatalities in each fire. The crews are the same. Rich Harvey, incident commander. Weather conditions were very, very similar. It's almost uncanny how that all came about," he said.
Schopper said it's difficult to just watch the firefighting, though he did put out embers during the Waldo Canyon fire.
"I've wanted to throw the camera down so many times and get in there in the fight," he said. "But that's not my job. My job is to document them doing the fight."
In the Black Forest fire video, Schopper recorded a crew of four saving a home where the property had been mitigated, making it much easier for firefighters to stop the wind-driven blaze.
"I walked in here the other day and Christina Randall, who is in charge of our Firewise program, just gave me a big hug and said, 'You've done so much more for our program than you can ever imagine,'" he said.
Viewers shared that sentiment.
"Dude. Amazing job on this! Totally sharing this everywhere," William Sterling wrote about the video on the city's Vimeo account.
In the video, Schopper calmly describes what firefighters are doing and what the home-owners did right. Schopper, who records most of the narration in the studio, said he doesn't want to show houses burning.
He also leaves out his coughing and firefighters cursing.
"Firefighters are no angels when it comes to cursing. I have got video and sound bites of firefighters actually cursing the little red devil, cursing the fire, just cursing it like they were going to get in a fight," he said.
"I've done it. I have actually cursed the fire and I mean cursed it to hell."
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