Town’s firefighting history to heat up Wheeler screen |

Town’s firefighting history to heat up Wheeler screen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

To commemorate its 50th anniversary last year, the Aspen Fire Protection District recorded some 30 hours of interviews with its longtime members, figuring to preserve the memories of the older firefighters.

For Darryl Grob, who has been fire chief since 1994, those interviews weren’t quite enough.

A hobbyist video editor who takes his hobby as seriously as a four-alarm conflagration, Grob took the project a little further. For the department’s Fourth of July dinner last year, he created an 18-minute photo montage of the interviews and set the piece to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.

It still didn’t satisfy the video editor in Grob. Over the last several months, Grob has put in some 200 hours to create a 50-minute documentary, “Put the Wet Stuff on the Red Stuff: Aspen Volunteer Firefighting Since 1881.”

The film will premiere Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. The screening, co-sponsored by the Aspen Historical Society, the Wheeler and the fire district, is part of the Wheeler’s Community Series. Admission is free and open to all.

Editor Grob and his colleagues ” especially firefighter Willard Clapper Jr., who conducted the original interviews and is a primary face of the documentary and Ben Gagnon, a local writer and public relations flack who is credited as writer and producer of “Put the Wet Stuff on the Red Stuff” ” are up to more than a glorification of Aspen’s volunteer firefighters.

Using historical and recent photographs, interviews, commentary narrated by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band singer Jimmy Ibbotson and a soundtrack by local musicians, “Put the Wet Stuff on the Red Stuff” places firefighting in the larger context of the surrounding community. As successive eras ” the mining boom, the Quiet Years, the hippie invasion, the arrival of the wealthy ” have washed over Aspen, they have had their impact on the fire department and the art of firefighting.

With the coming of the hippies in 1969, for instance, came a vastly increased level of fire activity. “They just set fires for fun, to see the trucks go,” recalls Zeke Clymer, a former fire chief.

Aspen’s relatively recent influx of monster homes and monster property valuations have also had consequences for firefighters, both obvious and hidden. The film traces the total property value of the real estate within its boundaries ” from $42 million in 1970 to $1.3 billion in 2002.

And newer homes, often built of synthetic materials, burn faster and hotter than structures made predominantly of wood. Having so much more at stake, the district has progressed to where Grob can proclaim it as competent as any firefighting department, professionals included.

The documentary includes some action photos and narratives, including descriptions of the Gulfstream jet crash near the Aspen airport in 2001. But more of “Put the Wet Stuff on the Red Stuff” is focused on the makeup of the fire district membership.

At one time, not only was the department exclusively white and male, but took its members from just a handful of prominent Aspen families. In the relatively egalitarian society that Aspen was in the ’50s and early ’60s, firefighting was among the most exclusive activities.

When Steve Crockett, a self-described hippie who later became a member of the department, first inquired about joining, he wasn’t even permitted to fill out an application.

With the growth of Aspen came a transformation in the fire department, from a “bunch of nice, red-necked guys,” says firefighter Tuvia Stein, to something more reflective of Aspen’s modern makeup.

Stein himself ” an Israeli-born, long-haired hairdresser who moved to Aspen from New York and joined the district in the early ’90s ” is an ideal example of the opening of the AFPD’s doors. The membership has since included women and blacks.

As much as the Aspen Fire Protection District has changed, however, the documentary also portrays how it has retained much of its character from the earliest days of firefighting in Aspen. As Grob puts it, the department has kept its fundamental purpose: “neighbors rushing to the aid of neighbors in the time of need.”

And in a time where change seems to be a constant, the AFPD can seem like an anchor to an earlier time, when Aspen was more like a normal small town.

“The fire department’s like an island in this busy little metropolis that has changed more slowly than the surrounding area,” says firefighter Brian Benton in the film. Benton adds that, when he gets together with fellow firefighters, “it’s like stepping back in time. It’s quite calming, really.

“We’re continuing a part of the small town I really enjoyed growing up in.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is


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