Aspen Times Weekly cover story: The departments are dialing it in

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cover by Afton Groepper

Drought, unhealthy forests, fire bans, low fuel-moisture content – the result of a mild winter and high spring temperatures – have forced firefighters throughout the valley to scamper to combine training efforts and resources to tackle a spring season that promises big risk and little mud.

With a wildfire season arriving much earlier than years past, special districts in Aspen, Snowmass and Basalt respond to large call volumes as they work to uphold a professional level of service while keeping their staff trained. But with a budget directly affected by decreased property values, giving some districts no choice but to cut buying and tap into savings accounts, fire marshals and chiefs stress the importance of mutual aid and public responsibility.

With a paid staff of five and the rest composed of on-call volunteers, the Aspen Fire Protection District services 87 square miles between four stations and is responsible for all fire emergencies occurring within its boundaries.

Like Snowmass, Basalt and Carbondale, the AFPD operates as a special district, meaning it is independently governed by an elected board of resident, citizen directors and obtains funding through property taxes paid by residents living in the service area.

Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven and chief volunteer Willard Clapper have a lead on the history of their district – one of the reasons the department has experienced the longest-standing success out of all volunteer organizations in the state.

“Before we spearheaded a campaign and unified as a special district in 1953, the fire department was essentially a couple guys from different towns going out to squirt water on a fire,” Van Walraven said of the department’s lack of formality.

But since the incorporation of a paid fire marshal position 17 years ago, Van Walraven recalled, the volunteer department, which deals solely with operations, has toughened its requirements and its preventive work.

“Over the past 15 years my department alone was able to update fire codes and life safety systems including alarms, sprinklers and annual inspections in buildings,” he said. “As a result, we have very little structure fires, which demonstrates the expert standards our team holds for their services.”

In addition to providing volunteers with a Firefighter I certification, which requires at least 36 hours of training per year, the AFPD trains volunteers on all emergency situations on a regular basis and often combines these drills with other districts, the local forest service and the police departments, both in the classroom and in the field.

And while the district maintains an extensive community-outreach program that provides prevention education to parents and kids on a range of topics – from fire and water rescue to hazardous materials and car accidents – Chief Volunteer Willard Clapper is certain that without a progressive, fiscally responsible board, mutual aid from sister districts and a responsive public, the AFPD wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as it has today.

“So many people walk through our doors and stand in awe of our equipment, wondering how in the world we manage to sustain all our resources under a volunteer fire department,” Clapper said in regard to its latest million-dollar purchase of a 107-foot aerial ladder truck. “I just refer them to the values of the properties around us. … These are the homes and people we need to protect, and our community recognizes that.”

Travel 10 miles down the road to the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire District, and realize that while it too is a special district, decreased property values in its 46-square-mile service area have resulted in distress on its multipart operation, which employs 25 full-time firefighter paramedic staff and a separate medical division.

Fire Marshal John Mele elaborates on operational cutbacks, strategic plans and crossover training for his paid staff – all while fighting to protect lands that haven’t been this dry since 2002.

“Our yearly call volume is around 1,000 with 40 percent of them in response to medical emergencies,” Mele said of his operation. “Our staff and volunteers are required to be trained as firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, and many of our personnel are cross-trained in most disciplines.”

With 13 pieces of apparatus, including three Advanced Life Support-equipped ambulances, the SWFD operates under one station with capabilities spreading to hazardous-materials response, automobile extrication, high- and low-angle rescue, ice rescue, aircraft incidents and fire suppression.

Each apparatus and piece of emergency equipment is checked by the team for readiness on a daily basis, and varied trainings delegated by a shift captain are performed regularly, including the agencies’ latest “refresher” training in wild land this month.

To cut the cost of travel and food, Mele tries to keep most training in-house with the exception of specialized trainings and valleywide, combined fire department trainings via mutual, automatic-aid agreements.

“The collaboration of fire departments across the valley started as handshake mutual-aid agreement as we realized we were all facing the same types of hazards in each of our jurisdictions,” he said. “Manpower would be our primary lack of resource should a large event occur. … We must join emergency forces locally to combat a tragedy like a large wildfire or structural building collapse.”

But despite unifying efforts to serve individual communities with increased manpower and quicker response times, including a “matching” of equipment to make a seamless exchange in emergency situations, Mele noted how his department continues to make conscious cutbacks on utilities such as lights and gasoline usage.

“Our district is not unique to this downturn of economy,” he said. “Our station is over 40 years old and in need of a replacement. We hold a great responsibility to protect our citizens from tragedy, but largely it is the community as a whole that decides the level of emergency response it wants and needs.”

So far, Mele’s team has serviced fires at North Fork, Castle Creek and Warren Creek Lane as it prepares for a wildfire season that usually doesn’t surface until August. He advises residents to store a 72-hour emergency kit in a safe place and practice escape drills should a hazardous event occur.

Fire Chief Scott Thompson and his crew currently operate a 34-year-old apparatus to help them service a district that spans 492 square miles and exists as one of the largest fire departments in Colorado.

With a full-time staff of only 13 and fewer than 50 volunteers, the Basalt Fire Protection District is composed of nearly 80 members among four fire stations and provides emergency fire, medical and preventive services between both Pitkin and Eagle counties.

Responding to approximately 600 calls per year – 65 percent EMS-related – Thompson and his team have recently been on their toes with approximately 20 calls per week and a budget that has been cut almost $1 million from last year.

“We anticipated this shift in the housing market about five years ago as we stopped buying new trucks and started putting money away into saving accounts,” Thompson said.

This year alone, Thompson’s district was forced to extract $150,000 from its savings to supplement the budget; $30,000 went to the replacement of the roof in the main station, and the rest went to aid services and operations.

But according to Thompson, the saving accounts won’t support them forever, and if property values don’t make an upturn in the near future, the BFPD could be forced to shutdown a station and layoff valuable personnel.

“It makes sense to have a separate tax go to our service alone,” he said. “In some cases it’s more advantageous than competing with other city entities for the upkeep of services. But I would hate to see us have to shut down a station because of decreased property values.”

Due to the span of BFPD’s service radius, separate fire stations help increase manpower and response times as they lower insurance rates and gas mileage.

In the meantime, however, Thompson and his team remain optimistic as they respond to high call volumes with the standby support of neighboring districts.

“There has definitely been concern up and down the valley this season, especially when the fuel-moisture content in brush and trees is appearing less than the content seen during the drought of 2002,” he said.

On the other hand, bad blood and strong egos between districts disappeared long ago, Thompson said.

“If we need something, we get it,” he said. “There are no territories, everyone is in this together to protect and serve our communities.”


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