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For The Rist Canyon VFD, Battling The High Park Fire Continues

Volunteer fire departments play a vital role in protecting citizens across Colorado’s Front Range. Often the first on the scene, these non-paid firefighters work tirelessly to keep their communities safe.

Members of the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department in the foothills west of Fort Collins have been working almost non-stop since the High Park wildfire began nearly two months ago. Situated among idyllic ponderosa pines and rolling pastures in Larimer County, Station One of the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department is a nondescript building on the side of the highway.

Dressed in blue jeans, dusty black cowboy boots and a baseball cap, 54 year old Fire Chief Bob Gann is moving boxes and tools around the station, which is overflowing with equipment.

“Right now it’s one of two station’s we have, one of them burned down. We had three. But it is our primary station and actually it’s overloaded now with stuff as you can see, but we’re working on that.”

Although they’ve trained for years, when the High Park Fire was first reported on June 9th – no one expected it to grow into the 2nd largest fire in Colorado’s history.

A Tour Of The High Park Fire Burn Zone


“One of my firefighters was first on scene, he lives in the area, he went to the fire on his four wheeler. His job was to size it up and tell us how to get there. And he did that in a period of about 20 minutes. He was able to get to the fire and say, ok -here’s how you get here.”

Soon all of the department’s resources including 35 firefighters and 12 station vehicles were out fighting the fire. And although the blaze has long since been contained, challenges for the volunteer department still remain.

“We had 8 firefighters lose their houses, so they’re in temporary housing, most of them in town so a long ways away. Even those who didn’t lose their houses a lot of them are in the back areas still don’t have power, and still recovery. So our ability to respond right now is a little bit down just because our people are displaced just like everyone else.”

The Rist Canyon VFD has now turned it's attention to to recovery, as well as mitigating the ever present risk of flash flooding.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
The station's Chevy Suburban is in immaculate shape. A new one could cost upwards of $47,000.

Funded entirely by donations – Bob Gann does everything he can to stretch the department’s resources. For example, one of the department's white Chevy Suburban trucks is 16 years old. It’s kept in immaculate shape since a new one would cost upwards of $47,000 dollars. That's money that could be used on keeping the department emergency ready.

Recovery Is Slow In The Burn Zone

Gann says recovery has been very slow. However, people are determined to rebuild. 

One of the hardest hit areas in the departments' protection area is the Whale Rock subdivision. 40 homes were lost in the blaze. It’s here that we find a man in work gloves and cargo pants shoveling ash and dirt from what’s left of his home. He’s now living in a camper.

After 14 years as fire chief – Bob Gann says he’s taken on a new role in the weeks after the High Park fire – that of advocate for the people.

Many are highly private – which is why they chose to live here. But Gann understands the fine line between telling the story of what happened during the fire, and giving people their privacy.

“Like I said, people don’t want looky-loos. And I’m struggling a little bit. We need to get funds for [residents] to rebuild, and we need the press to do that.”

Making A Stand On Buckhorn Mountain

While protecting homes was the department’s first priority, Gann and his crew staged one of their greatest battles on top of Buckhorn Mountain. The site is home to radio towers – including KUNC – and Larimer County’s emergency communication system.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
A temporary cell tower sits atop Buckhorn Mountain. Chief Bob Gann worked to get the tower to help restore phone service to the High Park Fire burn zone.

If that channel went down, it would have cut off the main source of communication for the firefighters.  According to the chief, at times the view from the top of the mountain looked like Armageddon. 

“But it would move through, so there would be an area maybe the size of that mountain that was a huge column, so we’re talking maybe a quarter of the view here would be a giant column with fire. And then everywhere else you’d see little fires with smoke everywhere. So everywhere you looked, you saw fire. I was here at one point where I had a giant column there, a giant column there, and a giant column there.”

Looking out across the charred acres of the High Park Fire burn zone, Gann says while his small volunteer fire department may have been overwhelmed by the size of the fire, their spirit wasn't broken.

“This is a big event in every sense of the way for the fire department, but it’s the event we trained for, and prepared for, and I’m gratified to say, it worked. As well as you possibly could imagine.”

Passing a sign that says, "Thank you firefighters! God bless you," Gann pauses. Showing some visible emotion, he says the signs are his inspiration.

"They’re what keeps us going. I mean as volunteers we do this solely for the satisfaction of helping people. There’s no other reason you would do this kind of thing. And so when we do something that people appreciate, it’s kind of core to why we do the whole thing.”

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