2017-08-10 / Sports

Softball star’s song of fire and ice

Kandi Kuder, who lost her mom to cancer, is now a firefighter in Florida
Jonathan Andrade

IN THE LINE OF FIRE—Kandi Kuder once put her body on the line as a softball catcher for Thousand Oaks High and the University of Tampa. Now she puts her life on the line as a firefighter with Tampa Fire Rescue. Courtesy of University of Tampa athletics IN THE LINE OF FIRE—Kandi Kuder once put her body on the line as a softball catcher for Thousand Oaks High and the University of Tampa. Now she puts her life on the line as a firefighter with Tampa Fire Rescue. Courtesy of University of Tampa athletics Firefighters live to protect citizens. They dream of the day they get to battle their first fire.

Kandi Kuder, a 2011 Thousand Oaks High graduate and former Lancer softball standout, won’t ever forget her first twoalarm rager.

The 24-year-old firefighter, who started working with Tampa Fire Rescue in February, had to wait four months before battling her first blaze.

When a furniture store went up in flames the night of June 18, Kuder and the rest of the Station 11 crew, known as the “House of Pain,” were the first to arrive.

The inferno was out of control.

Kuder was on the front line when the contents of the display room suddenly went up in flames.

MENTOR—Tampa Fire Rescue captain and hiring officer Luanna Baughman, right, is a mentor to rookie firefighter Kandi Kuder, 24. Courtesy of Kandi Kuder MENTOR—Tampa Fire Rescue captain and hiring officer Luanna Baughman, right, is a mentor to rookie firefighter Kandi Kuder, 24. Courtesy of Kandi Kuder “Our chief called a Mayday,” Kuder said. “The people that were in there, we all thought we were on fire. We might have been on fire from what people were saying. My captain grabbed me and yelled, ‘Kuder, get out! Get out!’”

The complete combustion is better known in the fire department as a flashover.

One firefighter was hospitalized with minor injuries in the blaze. Kuder escaped with only charred gear and a story to tell.

“It was eye-opening for my very first fire,” she said. “As scary as it was, it was awesome. It’s something you can always look back on.”

It was like a dramatic scene straight out of the movie “Backdraft.”

Kuder, 24, is not a movie star, but Kurt Russell (a Conejo Valley native who starred in “Backdraft”) would be impressed with Kuder’s toughness in the heat of battle.

She is entering her seventh month on the job, but that is still the only fire she’s battled so far. Her co-workers have started calling her a “white cloud” for the lack of fire activity during her shifts.

Still, the station is usually busy running about 20 calls a day, which include assaults, overdoses, other medical calls and car crashes.

The hectic lifestyle is what she’s hoped for since she went on a ride-along with the Ventura County Fire Department during a summer trip back home from college.

While she was daydreaming of fighting fires, Kuder, a catcher on the University of Tampa softball team, hit .306 in 125 games, knocking in 31 RBI and coming around to score 47 times in three years with the Spartans.

After graduation, Kuder decided to stay in Tampa for EMT and fire school.

Kenny Kuder, Kandi’s father, made some calls to see what his daughter could do to ensure success in the field.

The father said his call was transferred seven times before he was on the horn with Luanna Baughman, a Tampa Fire Rescue captain and hiring officer.

The two hit it off, and a lunch date between Kandi Kuder and Baughman was set.

“She made a very good first impression,” Baughman said. “I told her the steps, but everybody kind of liked her. She didn’t really have a hard time with anything.”

Kuder, who is 5-foot-3, used her athleticism and discipline to thrive during training.

“Where she lacks in height, she makes up for in strength,” Baughman said, adding that she spoke highly of Kuder to the department chief. “I don’t talk about people I don’t really believe in. There’s an amount of discipline she has that I knew (the chief) would love. She had a lot of good qualities.”

Baughman also welcomed Kuder into her family, inviting Kuder to Thanksgiving, Easter and Mother’s Day festivities.

Baughman was the strong female figure that had become foreign to Kuder since her mother, Cheryl Lynn, died in 2011. The mother of three passed away three short months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. The heartbreak only added to Kandi Kuder’s pain. Kuder lost her grandmother, Jan Kuder, to a brain aneurism in 2010.

Kandi Kuder said the somber years helped her become the strong woman she is today.

“My mom wouldn’t want me to give up my dream, my life or my career,” she said. “My mom’s motivated me because if she was here, she’d be proud of what I do. I don’t ever want to give up because I know she’s watching me.”

Kenny Kuder said he is forever grateful for the impact Baughman has had on his eldest daughter.

“If it wasn’t for her,” he said of Baughman, “Kandi wouldn’t be where she is. Captain Luanna was like her biggest mother figure in the world. She kind of took her under her wing with all this stuff. If she didn’t have that, it would have been super difficult.”

Kandi Kuder excelled while training to become a firefighter.

She woke up early for workouts and used lunch breaks to practice firefighting techniques, like ladder throws and ceiling breaches.

After getting through EMT school, Kuder passed the Candidate Physical Ability Test on her first try.

Kenny Kuder was surprised by his daughter, but Baughman knew she would be a natural.

“ Her level of fitness is above half the men on the job,” Baughman said.

Kandi Kuder has enjoyed being a role model in the community, participating in her first Camp Hopetake summer camp, a weeklong sleep-away for children who have survived burn injuries.

Stacy Fleming, a fellow Tampa firefighter who trained Kuder’s new recruit class, has volunteered at the camp for eight years.

Fleming said she was surprised by how well the kids took to Kuder.

“She just connected so well with all the kids,” Fleming said. “They loved her. She just has a really good outlook on life.”

Kuder enjoys the life of a firefighter, where she’s one of only 60 women in a department with more than 600 men.

She is thriving in her work, just like she did playing softball.

“I compare it to game day when I was playing college ball,” she said. “Every day we go to work and we don’t know what to expect. When you get a call, and you’re on the engine and the sirens are going, it’s almost the same adrenaline.”

Email Jonathan Andrade at jandrade@theacorn.com.

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