BELLEVUE – After weeks of backbreaking work and heartbreaking losses fighting the High Park Fire, the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department somehow came out smelling like a rose.
The department’s station at Whale Rock Road burned down. Eight firefighters lost their homes to flames. Half a dozen more suffered other property damage in a fire that burned for three weeks over 87,200 acres and claimed 259 homes in different canyons and fire districts west of Fort Collins.
Many of Rist Canyon’s 36 volunteer firefighters lost weeks’ worth of wages. And they worked in their one department-issued shirt, pair of pants and boots until they were falling-off rags.
Is there a silver lining here? “We’re a donation-based fire department. We don’t receive any tax funds,” Chief Bob Gann said. “That became known during the fire, and people were very generous – nationwide.” Donations poured in.
The department’s annual Labor Day weekend fundraiser netted close to $100,000. At the festival, one rhubarb pie – made by Barb Monesson from a resurrected plant charred by the blaze that claimed her home on Whale Rock Road – sold at auction for $1,000.
“I have nothing but high praise for the department – our wonderful extended family,” said Monesson, whose husband, Larry, is a volunteer. “There was no way they could have gotten up Whale Rock Road without dying in that fire.”
People sent money, about $30,000, earmarked as wages for firefighters. People sent money to help rebuild firefighters’ homes. And they sent money just to help the department.
While individual households were not made whole by the largesse, the department now has about $200,000 in the bank – the resources it needs to achieve some long-term goals and be more effective, Gann said.
The department, formed in 1975, has always run on a cash basis – more of a “miserly” basis, as Gann puts it. “Everybody knows I’m a tightwad,” he said. Behind his back, neighbors call him “a hero.”
“He’s an amazing creature,” Barb Monesson said. “He was always a good leader, but during the (High Park Fire), he and others became exceptional leaders.”
Now, the department has money to move forward with plans to expand Station One on Rist Canyon Road; rebuild the Whale Rock station, an area where 80 percent of homes were lost; add a fourth station in Buckhorn Canyon; and improve equipment everywhere, including the Stove Prairie station.
Gann said it’s all part of the department’s strategic initiative to better protect its almost 700 addresses scattered across 110 square miles.
“We’ve wanted for many years to put a station in Buckhorn Canyon,” said Gann, an engineer who has given 26 years to the all-volunteer fire department. “We’ll improve our ISO rating. This will help homeowners get better service and insurance.”
The Insurance Service Office rating of fire-department capabilities is a 1-through-10 scale, Gann said, and the best his woodland fire department can hope for without benefit of fire hydrants is a 9. That’s what they’re shooting for. It’s a significant help for homeowners, though, Gann said, if the department is upgraded to a 9.
A few homeowners lost their coverage. Companies wouldn’t renew their policies. Many residents saw premiums go up.
“We’ve had incredible support,” Gann said. “The fire department involves the whole community. Everyone wants to be involved. We don’t have any desire to become a tax district.”