“The High Park Fire is part of the history of Rist Canyon, but we are not defined by it,” said Bob Gann, Chief of the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department. “Rist Canyon has a long and rich history of its own.”
Part of that rich history is the RCVFD itself, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It was 1975 — the year Bill Gates founded Microsoft, Gerald Ford was president and Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” topped the charts — that Rist Canyon residents took fire-fighting matters into their own hands.
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Before then, the homes and structures in the Rist Canyon/Stove Prairie areas were not included in any fire protection district. Larimer County had jurisdiction over wildland fires, but the mountain residents wanted structure protection, too.
On April 12, 1975, approximately 75 people met at Stove Prairie School to discuss the need for a fire department. Most were in favor, and an organizing committee was formed. At a second public meeting on May 16, the decision was made to form the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department. Elections were held, and Stephen Cox was elected the first president. In a follow-up letter to residents, Cox apologized for the May 16 meeting falling on “the same date as the Ali-Lyle fight.”
But Cox was pragmatic.
“The fire danger is getting much worse because of the rapidly-increasing population, the greater number of tourists, and the many pine trees killed by bark beetle,” he said. “The State Forest Service warns us that we’re just sitting on a pile of kindling waiting for the right match.”
RCVFD’s initial firefighters included 25 men and women, who trained hard to serve more than 300 families over 38 square miles. The Colorado State Forest Service donated a 1,000-gallon pumper truck, and two-way radio units served for communication. The first firehouse was planned at the top of Ford Hill, and the department applied for an FHA loan.
The site of the firehouse was moved when Lowell Johnson donated three-tenths of an acre for a building site. “After we got the loan, we built everything but the roofing for the A-frame,” Johnson reported in handwritten notes about the construction. “We hired a short guy named Joe, who moved up and down that roof with loads of shingles like they were 10 lbs. apiece. While we were watching him work one day, all of a sudden he fell off the roof about half way up. We hurried over to him, but he just got up and climbed up back to work like nothing happened. Whew!”
The RCVFD began as all-volunteer and donation-funded, and that’s been a point of pride for the past 40 years. Many rural departments, faced with rising costs and decreasing funds, are now supported by taxes through the creation of fire protection districts. RCVFD, though not without its share of financial struggles, remains 100 percent donation-based, relying heavily on fundraisers such as its annual Mountain Festival.
The department’s first fundraiser was a Box Social (“with each woman bringing a boxed supper”). A dance followed with music by the Moonshiners, and firewood from beetle-killed trees sold for $30 a cord. Membership in the RCVFD was offered for an annual donation of $10.
The RCVFD’s first Summer Festival (now Mountain Festival) was held the Sunday of Labor Day weekend in 1979. Although that date has not changed in 40 years, the activities of the event certainly have. The early festivals featured a greased pig catch, black powder turkey shoot, goat roping, chicken chases, and a dunking tank. Contests were held for log-splitting, log-throwing, nail-pounding, watermelon seed-spitting, bubble-gum blowing, beer chugging (adults), Kool-Aid chugging (kids), water-balloon toss, egg throwing, and bean-bag toss. In the log-sawing contest, couples vied for the fastest time using an old-fashioned, two-person crosscut saw.
One year, two mountain men arrived, dressed in buckskins with wide-brimmed hats. Addressing themselves as The Rattlesnake and Broken Butt, they entertained the audience with little-known tales of themselves and mountain men. The Coloradoan newspaper reported, “To clear up any confusion, the latter was so named after damaging that part of his rifle, not his anatomy.”
These early documents and stories are precious to the RCVFD because they are so few. The High Park Fire in 2012, which burned 259 homes in the area, destroyed many photographs and memories. Eight RCVFD volunteer firefighters lost their homes. Several years ago, four of the founding members were videotaped for historical preservation. All copies of those tapes burned in the fire.
The High Park Fire, which destroyed 87,000-plus acres, was sandwiched between two other major disasters to recently hit the area. In 2011, the human-caused Crystal Fire destroyed several homes, and the floods in 2013 was a 500-1000-year flood event that demolished roads and properties.
Today, RCVFD responds to between 50 and 100 calls per year, including fire, rescue, and emergency/medical. The original service area of 38 square miles has grown to 110 square miles, increasing the challenges that firefighters face: steep terrain, dirt roads, long distances and lack of water. Without a hydrant system, the RCVFD still follows the practice from 1975 – using water from ponds, lakes and streams.
The department’s 40th anniversary will be celebrated this year at the annual Mountain Festival and Richard Schmid Fine Art Auction on Sunday, Sept. 6. For more information, please go to rcvfd.org and click on Mountain Festival. Donations, which are tax-exempt, may be mailed to RCVFD Treasurer, P.O. Box 2, Bellvue, CO 80512.
The RCVFD Mountain Festival and Richard Schmid Fine Art Auction is Sunday, Sept. 6, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. across from Rist Canyon Fire Station 1, 11835 Rist Canyon Road in Bellvue. The scenic mountain event offers a wide range of activities for the whole family. In addition to the live art auction, festivities will include a huge and well-stocked book tent, an Old Fashioned Bake Sale, the Firehouse Silent Auction, the ever-popular Mountain Craft Market (with eclectic and varied vendors), children’s activities, fantastic food, and great bands and entertainment. Both admission and parking are free. For more information, please go to rcvfd.org and click on Mountain Festival.