After 40 years as Aspen volunteer fireman, Ron Baar calls it quits
Asking Ron Baar about which fires he remembers fighting the most, and how many he actually fought, won’t yield an exact answer.
“That’s like asking somebody how many times they drove over Independence Pass,” Barr said last week.
At 69 years old, Baar spent more than half of his life volunteering for the Aspen Fire Department.
He can tell you when he joined the department: May 1978.
Or how many fire chiefs he worked under: 10.
And some of biggest fires he fought: “Probably in Oregon or Washington in the early ’90s.”
“Our Fire Department turned 135 years old last year, and Ron has been here for nearly one third of that time,” Fire Chief Rick Balentine said.
For Baar, who was born in Queens, New York, to Austrian parents who fled their country because of World War II, volunteering nearly four decades for the Fire Department came out of his instinctual duty to serve the Aspen community and the yearning for camaraderie that came with public safety.
He lived in Parker before moving to Aspen, and also resided in Crested Butte and went to college in Gunnison before returning here permanently in the late ’70s. He also worked with the Crested Butte Hot Shots, gaining experience in the field of fighting wildfires before moving to Aspen.
“The department is more about the people you are with,” he said. “In Aspen, everybody helps everybody. It was instilled in me to help your neighbors.”
Last week, Baar retired from the department, with his fellow firefighters giving him a send-off celebration at the Hopkins Avenue headquarters. Still an employee of Aspen Skiing Co. where he works as a snowplower, Baar once labored at Tom’s Market and has taken on other jobs around town to make a living. He also worked seasonally for the Aspen Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service from 1988 to 2004.
All the while, his volunteer firefighter role has been a constant.
“In the application, it asked why do you want to be with the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, and being the smartass that I was, I wrote, ‘To get out of the store (Tom’s),’” he said.
Back then, becoming a volunteer firefighter wasn’t automatic. It helped to know someone on the staff or be related to them.
Today, the department has about 40 volunteers, Balentine said, in a district that has roughly $22 billion worth of property to protect.
The Fire Department also has evolved to as much a rescue organization as a firefighting agency. With the advent of technology and more ways to protect properties, the number of structure fires is nothing like it was in the ’70s and ’80s, Balentine said.
Even so, the occasional structure fires can take their tolls both physically and emotionally. In June 2008, a blaze destroyed an apartment building at Castle Ridge Apartments near the hospital. Eighteen residents were displaced.
“You feel bad when you see people arriving home (that is on fire),” Baar said. “It breaks your heart. There’s just no joy knowing they’ve lost it all.”
Baar said he takes particular pride in working with the new volunteers and showing them the ropes. He also said the group he has worked with has been like family over the years.
When his wife died in 2003, the Fire Department rallied around him, he said. He also has a 30-year-old son who lives and works in the Aspen area.
Baar has gone to the Burning Man festival a few times, to both work and play, and lives the typical Aspen outdoors lifestyle — skiing, fishing and four-wheeling, among other pursuits.
Retiring as a volunteer isn’t easy, Baar said, but the time is right.
“You reach a point where you’ve got to move on to the next phase,” he said, later adding: “It’s just wonderful to be a part of this with the community. I just wish and hope these values never go away.”
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