The morning Art Rieke submitted his resignation to the Durango Fire Protection District, after 50 years of service, Rieke, wearing a Durango Fire shirt, wistfully said, “I regret not being 18 and being able to do this for 50 years again.”
Rieke, 68, began volunteering after his graduation from high school in 1970. It was not a random move made by a young man uncertain about what he wanted to do next in life. His father was also a volunteer firefighter and helped create the Animas Fire Protection District in 1970 – the first publicly funded district in the area outside Durango city limits. His father entered the trade after being rescued from a burning apartment building in the 1950s.
After 50 years, Art Rieke is the longest-serving member of the Durango Fire Protection District.
Tony Harwig, who met Rieke in 1983 and is now chief of the Los Pinos Fire Department, said firefighting “was kind of born into him (Rieke).”
“I was never drafted, and firefighting was my way of serving my community,” Rieke said.
Work as a firefighterRieke worked as a volunteer until 2000 when Animas Fire and Durango Fire districts consolidated under the current umbrella organization of Durango Fire Protection District. After the consolidation, Rieke was hired as a paid, part-time firefighter until his resignation in 2009, at age 59. He immediately became a volunteer again, and has been serving as such ever since. His last day will be at the end of this month, bringing an end to 50 years of continuous service.
That’s nine years of part-time work, and 41 years of volunteer service.
To Harwig and Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty, what stands out about Rieke is his 41 years of volunteer service. Both chiefs said it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people who are willing to volunteer for five or 10 years. Doughty said the department has 16 fire stations, and 12 are fully staffed by volunteers.
“He’s the kind of volunteer I want in my department,” Harwig said. “I would give my left arm for a handful of people like that. That’s who we need protecting these communities.”
When the department receives a call, it alerts volunteer firefighters, and if they can make it, they show up on scene. But it also takes hours of training to become a volunteer.
Rieke’s daughter, Karyn Ekola, said it was routine for Rieke to respond to a call halfway through dinner or while at a restaurant. And like Rieke did with his father, Ekola said she tagged along with Rieke on a number of calls. She would stay in the car as her dad rushed to someone’s aid. She recalled one such call in which they arrived to find a building fully engulfed in flames. Shortly after arrival, she watched her dad walk into the flames.
Ekola also responded with her father to a number of tragic accidents, including fatal car crashes.
“I learned to never take life for granted,” Ekola said.
One of the calls Rieke responded to on a late fall night in the 1970s was a crashed, submerged car in Turtle Lake. Rieke and another firefighter were the first on scene. They waded into the lake in blue jeans and pulled two girls out of the car who had been submerged for 45 minutes. An ambulance transported the girls, and, miraculously, they were revived.
Rieke said responding to so many traumatic events, where sometimes people aren’t as lucky, takes an emotional toll on first responders. He relied on his fellow co-workers and family to help him process and work through the difficult emotional parts of the job.
“The support of the family is critical,” Rieke said.
Rieke’s wife, Mary, also served as a volunteer firefighter in Durango, from 2000 to 2019. When Mary Rieke first started volunteering, she said Art stood out because “Art encouraged women to be firefighters.”
Twenty years ago, it was rare for women to be firefighters, and Art’s encouragement made her feel more comfortable on the job. Specifically, she said he trusted her, and other female firefighters to complete the job like any other member of the crew. His trust helped her build confidence and skill.
The Riekes worked together on dozens of calls, like when they dropped their day jobs to help fight the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.
Pride in the departmentWhen Art Rieke started firefighting, the department had only a couple of brush trucks, and “back then, if you could breathe, you were in.” Now, however, Rieke expressed pride in the ways the department prepares its firefighters and has adapted to protect the growing community.
Training for volunteers now takes close to a year, and the department has a fleet of ladder trucks, engines, ambulances, brush trucks and fast-response trucks. Citing the vision of leaders within the department, Rieke, with a smile, said, “There’s nothing we can’t handle.”
What’s next?Rieke said he will miss “the incredible people I got to work with.” The family environment in firehouses was one of the great sources of joy while on the job, Rieke said, and he is sure to visit frequently.
As for what’s next, Rieke said, “There’s a lot of camping ahead of us.” He also hopes to participate on the boards of local organizations that support the first-responder community.
Even though he no longer will be responding to calls, his legacy will live on.
“I’m so fortunate that I got to meet someone like that in my career and, hopefully, model some of my behavior after him,” Harwig said. “He’s been quite the mentor over the years.”