Burning with pride | AspenTimes.com

Burning with pride

An old Chevy surplus vehicle, elementary equipment, minimal support, lots of booze, camaraderie and brave men with leather lungs symbolized the early days of the Aspen Fire Protection District.

Fifty years later, only traces of the past remain.

Nine top-of-the-line fire engines and support vehicles have replaced that 1943 Chevy. Forty-seven volunteer firefighters have superior equipment, facilities and training at their disposal. Booze, once considered somewhat of a problem in the department, is no longer tolerated while on duty. And though brave, the men no longer boast leather lungs. Air-pacs and advances in equipment and technique have reduced smoke- and heat-related lung ailments.

Oh, yeah – and a few equally brave women have joined the ranks.

But at least a couple of things haven’t changed at all.

The first is an individual, Sam Stapleton, who has served on the Aspen Fire Protection District’s governing board since its creation in 1953. The second is an attitude, deeply ingrained in the department, of camaraderie, pride, and respect for past generations of firefighters. Over the Fourth of July weekend, both the individuals and the attitude were on full display in Aspen as the District celebrated its 50th anniversary.

As a 50-year board member, Stapleton was the Grand Marshal of Aspen’s Fourth of July parade, and current and former members of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department were honored and immortalized in a series of taped interviews at the fire barn in downtown Aspen. Willard Clapper Jr., a member of the AVFD for more than 20 years, organized the event. Fearful that department history was slipping away, Clapper Jr. felt something had to be done to catch it before it vanished for good.

Clapper was the right man for the job. At one point, five Clappers were AVFD members. Clapper and three of his brothers – Dale, Tommy and Jay – all served under their dad, Willard Clapper Sr., who was the chief of the AVFD at the time. There’s no shortage of Aspen firefighting history, or pride, in the Clapper family.

“It was a great opportunity to preserve the story and history of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department,” said Clapper. “The camaraderie was just thick.”

The AVFD has the close-knit loyalty of a family and the professionalism of a proud institution. Though social and technological changes have affected Aspen firefighting over the years, the AVFD remains fundamentally a tight group of people, perhaps a little rough around the edges, but dedicated to service.

District History

The history of the AVFD can be traced to 1881, when the town allocated $200 for a “bucket wagon,” a human-towed vehicle that carried buckets of water. In 1883, citizens volunteered to become firefighters, and five hook-and-ladder companies were created to form the AVFD. A year later, fire hydrants were installed in town. Over the years, efficiency improved with hose cart teams and eventually horse-drawn wagons that could be converted to sleighs in the winter.

For 60 years, the AVFD acted without a net, relying on sporadic infusions of money from the city government. Furthermore, they were prevented from responding to calls outside the city limits – a result of inadequate equipment and a lack of authorization.

“The equipment they had in Aspen wouldn’t work in the rural areas,” Stapleton said, “so [the creation of the Fire District] was real important.”

In 1952, firefighters began building support for an election to form the Aspen Fire Protection District. A year later, it became a reality.

With the formation of the District came reliable funds – via a tax levy – and a larger coverage area. No longer would the firefighters have to sit back and watch fires burn outside town. Additionally, they were able to purchase more modern equipment, which fostered a heightened sense of organization and support.

The AVFD’s first fire truck was the FWD (Four Wheel Drive), named after the company that designed it.

In an interview with Willard Clapper Jr. filmed by GrassRoots Television last spring, Bud Strong, the District’s first chief, discussed the importance of the FWD.

“When we got the FWD we thought we were in hog heaven because that would go anywhere and pump a lot of water,” Strong said. Soon after, the FWD was joined by the 1943 Chevy surplus vehicle, which was used to chase down and suppress wild grass fires.

Today, the Fire District covers 87 square miles, from Difficult Campground to Gerbazdale, and up both Castle Creek and Maroon Creek. It’s managed by five members who oversee the budget and policies.

The Grand Marshal

Sam Stapleton never fought fires with the AVFD, but on Saturday, July 5, in recognition of decades of service on the board, he became an honorary member. About 30 years ago, Stapleton, now 76 years old, intended to join the AVFD. Before joining, however, he learned he was almost too old, so he never served. Being named an honorary member was the next best thing.

“It made me feel great,” Stapleton said.

Stapleton was born in Aspen, across the street from where he now lives in Owl Creek. In 1953, he was appointed to the Fire Protection District board by the Pitkin County commissioners, and he’s been there ever since. Asked when he might retire, Stapleton said simply “I’ll stay with it awhile.”

For Stapleton, the most important part of his job has always been to provide the firefighters with the best equipment possible. According to the firefighters, he’s performed admirably.

“We do a heck of a job,” Clapper said about the AVFD, “but that’s mainly because of the Fire District [board members]. If they didn’t exist, it’d be a very different situation.”

Strictly Professional

While strictly volunteer, the AVFD is highly professional. In the late 1980s, every member of the AVFD attained Firefighter 1 status, the minimum requirement for a paid, professional firefighter. The AVFD was the first volunteer department in the state to achieve such a ranking, and the firefighters remain proud of the distinction.

“We’re very professional,” said AVFD Chief Darryl Grob. “All [volunteers] are state-certified firefighters to a national standard.”

In addition to the more common calls, the AVFD is trained to respond to emergencies involving hazardous waste, weapons of mass destruction and wildfires.

Now in his 10th year as chief, Grob first joined the AVFD in 1980, when things were a little different. While responding to his first fire, he noticed that the driver of the engine was cradling a beer between his legs.

“There was a loose, wild sense of adventure to the whole thing,” Grob said. “It’s changed a lot since the ’70s and ’80s.”

As Aspen’s population grew, the AVFD was forced to get serious. Grob was elected volunteer chief in 1994. A year later, he became the first full-time chief, a paid position.

There are three other full-time, paid staff members – Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven, fire inspector Orrin Moon and office manager Jan Osnes.

Firefighting Females

There are currently 47 volunteers on the AVFD, including seven women. Amy Knight, a 10-year veteran, has worked in several units, including car extrication and water rescue, and is trained as a mine rescuer. She has also fought her fair share of fires. Knight’s decision to join the AVFD was natural – her father was a firefighter.

When she moved to Aspen 13 years ago, Knight waited for the mandatory two years, applied to the District and was accepted.

“I knew I needed to do something for this community that had done so much for me,” she said.

At the time, Knight and Jan Schubert were the only women in the department.

“It was like coming into a group of big brothers,” Knight said. “They were there to help me. I never felt intimidated.”

The mother of a 2-year-old boy, Knight said volunteering for the AVFD has been invaluable. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.

One of the highlights of her career was when two veteran, male firefighters asked her to join them on a house fire up Red Mountain.

“They said, `Amy, why don’t you put on a tank and come in with us,’ and that was really cool, a huge highlight for me,” she said.

Booze Blues

When Zeke “Clyde” Clymer became chief of the AVFD in 1958, his greatest concern, aside from fighting fires, was the sobriety of his volunteers.

“The group would sit down and get drunk before a fire,” Clymer said. “I fought the drinking problem all the time.”

In those days, most of the volunteers were members of the Elks and Eagles lodges – popular fraternal organizations in Aspen. Jack Ilgen, who joined the AVFD in 1953, remembers that time.

“You wouldn’t want to be walking past the Eagles or Elks clubs when the alarm sounded for a fire,” Ilgen said. “You’d get run over.”

After a fire, Clymer said, the men were more interested in drinking than preparing the truck for the next emergency. And meetings were just as bad.

“They’d get to arguing during a meeting,” Clymer recalled. “They didn’t know what they were talking about, you couldn’t get anything settled with drunks arguing.

“I laid the law down – `No drinking before or after a meeting.'”

It all came to a head, Clymer said, when the volunteers started taking out the fire truck for drunken joy rides in the middle of the night, blaring the sirens and flashing the lights.

“I’d tell the police department to find out who was driving and [give them a DUI test],” Clymer laughed. “They never drove that fire truck again.”

He also thinks the AVFD-conducted Fourth of July fireworks display may have scared some firefighters sober. In one incident, a full box of fireworks exploded after an unnamed firefighter forgot to protect it from cascading ashes and sparks.

But other firefighters, such as Clapper, whose dad succeeded Clymer as chief, don’t feel the drinking was a big issue.

“If you were the boss, it was a problem … if you were the firefighter, it wasn’t,” Clapper said.

“It was kind of like the Hell’s Angels, a whole macho image,” he added. “I think the fire department fostered that image; it was a fun thing to laugh about. Rarely did anyone get trashed.”

Whatever the case, problem or not, nobody’s trashed anymore.

“It’s changed 100 percent,” Chief Grob said. “It’s no longer tolerated, there’s a zero-tolerance policy. If you have a single drink and the alarm goes off, you can’t go.”

The Greatest Generation

The men who served during the AVFD’s early days were a different breed from a different time. Some of them were veterans of World War II and the Korean War; all of them were tough guys.

One such firefighter was Ray Lowderback, a true original who left a long legacy. Lowderback died in January, but served for 32 years, from 1948 to 1980, and is considered an AVFD icon. His parents moved to Aspen from Missouri in the early 1900s, and his daughter, Rosie Lauriski, still lives in town.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said of the old days. “It was like one big family, a real close bunch of guys.”

She remembers being a little girl, hopping out of bed in the middle of the night at the sound of the siren. “I’d go clean the car off, hop in with my dad, and go watch.” Later, as a grown woman, she and her friends would make the firefighters coffee and sandwiches whenever there was a fire. After all, she was married to a volunteer firefighter, Stan Lauriski.

“They were those guys, that best generation,” Clapper said.

While times have changed, those guys are certainly not forgotten. Much AVFD tradition is based on that generation. They were the originals, they created the District, and they are the guys the current firefighters try to emulate.

“We have become more professional in what we do, but I think we have the same kind of characters on the Fire Department today that we did back then,” said Bill McEnteer, a former captain who still serves on the AVFD, in a GrassRoots interview.

Aspen has grown, and with it the fire department. It’s more professional, better equipped, more formal, and in liability terms, more vulnerable. Those factors have changed the way the department operates, but they haven’t changed the essential character of the volunteer.

“I think we have the same kind of people, they’re there for the same reasons, they want to help out, they want to contribute back to our community … we all love this town,” McEnteer said. “There’s a few more constraints that we have on us now, because society has changed. There’s more lawyers looking for mistakes, we have to be a little more formal.”

But the camaraderie, respect and support for current and former members remain.

“That was part of the whole mystique,” said former firefighter Dale Clapper, in a GrassRoots TV interview. “The [fire] barn was everybody’s house and everybody felt so comfortable there. I have never been so accepted or felt so good about anything in my life.”

For Clapper, it was his destiny to become a part of the AVFD.

“To me, that was a key part of growing up in Aspen,” he said.

A Hose Cart Champion

Stan Lauriski served on the AVFD for 27 years, part of that time as chief. In somewhat of a tribute to the older generations, Lauriski and some of his firefighting friends started competing on the AVFD Hose Cart Team.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several volunteer fire departments in Colorado developed teams and it became a pretty big deal. Whoever could run the cumbersome old carts 300 feet in the fastest time won. In 1981, Lauriski and his team took the Colorado Hose Cart State Championship, defeating a team from Denver.

But Lauriski also had his not-so-fun times on the department. While fighting a large fire in a Durant Avenue condominium complex in the 1970s, Lauriski had a close call.

Arriving on the scene, he charged into the roaring fire and soon found himself on a balcony with flames closing in.

“They knew I was in trouble,” Lauriski said. The AVFD responded, and soon Lauriski was lifted from the balcony in a fire basket.

“The whole thing broke out in flames right behind me,” Lauriski said. “Somebody was watching out for me.”

To this day, he can’t remember how or why he put himself in such a situation. But others say he was just being Stan Lauriski, always charging into the fire, always selfless.

“I’ve got more respect for this man than anybody in this valley,” said Tim Herwick, a former volunteer. “He’s an awesome piece of Aspen fire department history.”

Gallows Humor

To be a firefighter, it’s best to have a sense of humor. Pranks come with the territory: Over the recent holiday, one fireman actually had a string of lit fireworks attached to his boots after falling asleep on the couch.

But another type of firehouse humor has more to do with survival.

“When the black humor comes out it’s really a kind of self-defense and release,” Tim Cottrell said in a taped interview with Clapper, “especially after you go to a car wreck or a plane crash, some of that real serious stuff.”

“Black humor is the only way you’re going to get through [some calls],” said Amy Knight, “otherwise it will plague you and burn you out and create problems in your personal life.”

Firehouse humor, most of it unsuitable for a family newspaper, is one way of dealing with post-traumatic stress. For those who require more formal attention, the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team, or Triad, is on call 24 hours a day.

“[CISM] is available on call throughout the region to come in and conduct debriefing,” Grob said. “[They’re] playing an increasingly important role in managing the mental health of emergency responders, who are periodically exposed to tragic and sometimes grotesque scenes.”

In the end, everybody uses what’s best for their own personal recovery. Said Grob, “It’s a mosaic of mutual trust, mutual respect, intimate communications and black humor.”

An Extended Family

Aspen is far removed both physically and mentally from New York City, but there is a connection. Nearly two years after September 11, the AVFD has developed a close relationship to certain members of the New York City Fire Department. Spearheaded by Aspen resident Carmen Kobacker, a group of firefighters, widows and children associated with the FDNY receive a free week of skiing and lodging in Aspen. In the last two years, members of the AVFD and the FDNY have become friends, visiting each others homes and fire stations.

They may be worlds apart, but the firefighters all strive to save lives, and they are all supported by their communities.

Almost like a firefighting family.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com

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