In 1975, Dan Noonan was stocking shelves at a Safeway supermarket and working part-time construction when he was approached to volunteer as a firefighter. Almost 40 years of service later, Noonan celebrated on Sunday his approaching retirement as chief of the Durango Fire Protection District.
Friends, family and colleagues of the soon-to-be retired fire chief packed Ska Brewery to honor Noonan on the warm fall afternoon, though not enough to violate the building’s maximum occupancy fire code.
“Durango is losing a guy who has been an integral part of the community,” Los Piños Fire Chief Larry Behrens said. “You can’t replace that overnight.”
Noonan, 59, was living in Andover, Massachusetts, when he married his high school sweetheart and the couple soon had their first child. One of six children from an Irish Catholic family, Noonan heeded the call when his sister said he should move his new family out to Durango.
“I said, ‘What have we got to lose,’” he said. “Why not take a chance and drive out West and see what life brings us.”
After a treacherous ascent of Wolf Creek Pass behind a semi-truck in whiteout conditions, Noonan fell in love with the natural beauty of the Animas Valley and said he never looked back.
He was unable to find full-time work in construction and settled on a job at Safeway to help support his family. Working on a side-job, a local fire lieutenant in need of volunteers invited Noonan to an informational meeting.
He likes to say after that, “the rest is history.”
Noonan spent a total of 39 years in fire service in La Plata County: 10 as a volunteer with Animas and Hermosa Cliff fire protection districts, and 29 as a career firefighter with Hermosa Cliff and then Durango Fire Protection District after they merged. He was appointed chief in 2007.
Noonan’s reign as fire chief was largely defined by the often tumultuous merger of five local protection districts into one entity, now known as the Durango Fire Protection District.
“His dedication brought us to where we are today: one board and one agency serving one community,” said Kathy Morris, a DFPD board member. “He was able to bridge the gap and work across political lines, if you will. He never gave up.”
Morris said most residents don’t know all the gritty behind-the-scenes details of the fire districts at that time as each agency pushed its agenda and battled for budgets, and that’s because Noonan stayed committed to providing over-and-above service.
His son, Logan Noonan, said the period of the merger was the only time he ever saw his father stressed, but his dad stuck it out because he believed so much in the work.
“This community has been very lucky and fortunate,” Logan Noonan said.
It’s almost fitting that after years of contentious and emotionally racked fervor surrounding the joining of the districts, Noonan announced in June he would pass the torch of fire chief. The merger stands as the final high note on an illustrious career.
“He keeps an open mind and listens to what his opposition is saying,” said Deputy Chief Hal Doughty, who will become the district’s new fire chief at the start of the new year. “He’s a tremendous leader.”
Noonan was fire chief during some of the region’s worst burns: the Missionary Ridge Fire of 2002; the Main Avenue Season’s Fire in 2008; and when a natural gas facility exploded in 2007.
Nick Mrzlak, a Farmington Fire battalion chief who worked at the Hermosa Cliff district, said Noonan was always an inspirational leader who served as a role model and mentor for young firefighters.
Those who spoke Sunday reiterated that Noonan is a selfless man, dedicated to his family and community, who worked his entire life to protect and serve those in need.
“You just can’t sum up a 39-year career in one afternoon,” said Randy Kuykendall of Colorado Public Health and Environment.
Noonan said he has no immediate plans, except that he bought a camper and intends to travel with his wife and family. He will transition out of his role by the end of the calendar year and take it from there.
“Like anything in life, I don’t decide anything over night,” he said. “I looked at my life and the profession I’ve had over the years and figured it was the best time for me to step back and create some new memories, and see what other doors open.
“I’m extremely proud and honored to have worked with all the fire departments in the past, and with people who truly dedicate themselves to taking care of this community.”
One side note: Gov. John Hickenlooper deemed Oct. 4 “Dan Noonan Day” for the state of Colorado.