Early History of the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Department
(Originally written February 18, 2000, by Lila Greer for an Appreciation night for the Firemen at the Grange Rewritten and updated 2007 and again in 2012 by Jean Campion)
On July 31, 1961, the Pat Greer home burned to the ground. Fortunately no one was home, but the house was completely lost. That event led Pat to begin thinking about the need for a fire truck for the community. He talked with others in the community and a few people got stirred up. What could they do and where could they start? Pat Greer, Dick Greer, Russell Kennedy, Gene Kennedy, Carol Daniels, Howard Chastain, and others started making plans.
When they started there was no opposition, but there was a lot of skepticism. There was no money to buy a truck, so the Door to Door Program went into effect and the prospective Firemen went asking for donations. Some of the locals donated money, others donated work, but the largest single donation came from La Plata, NM. Jack and Donald Harris had an old 1957 county Dodge dump truck that they sold to the volunteers in l964. That same year the State Highway Department rebuilt Highway 140 by the Long Hollow Mill. The contractor rented the truck which earned enough money to help pay for the truck. Dick Greer and Howard Chastain took the dump bed off the truck and sold the bed to Frank Varia.
About this time Durango had a Bogus Bucks promotion. When you made a large purchase, you received a Bogus Buck for every dollar you paid. The firemen started collecting the Bogus money. A Bogus Bucks Auction was held at the National Guard Armory, then located just north of the Fairgrounds. The group decided to buy equipment or items to raffle. At the auction the fellows soon found out that they did not have enough money to buy anything, so they were standing around. When people found out who they were and what they were there for and realized themselves that they did not have enough Bogus Bucks to buy anything either, they gave their Bucks to the firemen. Bob Richardson gathered the money and the other fellows counted. By the time the auction was over, they had purchased a nice bedroom set, a pole lamp, a transistor radio, and some other small items.
They raffled off the Bogus Dollar purchases, but no one can remember how much they made. One unusual circumstance came up. A fellow bought two tickets for the raffle, and after the drawing he came and asked if he could go through all the tickets. He wanted to see if his two tickets were in the box and “Yes” they were. He was just checking the honesty of the raffle, we guess.
The FLM’s First Fire Truck
The Door to Door Campaign didn’t fill the bill as more money was needed. Some suggested more raffles. They approached Fred Kroeger about buying a chain saw, which he generously donated, and they raffled it off. Gene Kennedy remembered that they bought two or three cases of fire extinguishers and sold them for $12 each. Gene didn’t think they made much money on that deal. People had one thought in mind when they saw the firemen: “Are you going to ask us for money or are you going to sell us a raffle ticket?”
In 1967 a verbal agreement was made with La Plata, NM, that if we got a fire department started, we’d help them if they’d help us since some of the money came from La Plata.
The Forest Service had some excess equipment that they donated. There was a catch: It was in Fort Collins. Pat Greer and Russell Kennedy took Ed Kennedy’s (Russell’s dad) truck to Fort Collins and they brought back two stainless steel containers or tanks, a pump, and odds and ends of fittings and hoses. They hired Jack Newbolt to design an engine, put the tanks on and put the whole outfit together. With Jack’s ingenuity, he assembled a good truck for them. I’m sure he didn’t get overly rich from this job. (Tom Campion remembers that this truck was later donated to the Arboles Fire Dept.) They were now in the fire fighting business. They didn’t have any training, practically no funds, no garage to house the truck, and the volunteers paid for the gas, but they were as ready as they could be for a fire.
It seemed that the community’s enthusiasm had died down and they were back to the few diehards who started the whole thing. Pat Greer says that Russell Kennedy kept them going. He says, “The rest of us sorta ran hot and cold.” They sponsored a dance at the Breen Grange Hall and raised $377. Harry Greer remembers an auction along with the dance which made $200. They tried every way to raise money.
The first fire Pat Greer remembers going to was Lloyd and Cecil Benton’s bean shed in October 1969. He says, “We got there just in time to save the foundation.” Pat says they were doing okay until they ran out of water. No one had any experience in fire fighting and there was no back-up for additional water, but they were trying. It was at this fire that the community really saw that they had a truck and could spray water and people willing to fight fire.
An Early Fire Truck for the FLM Department
Always after a big fire the enthusiasm of the community bounced back, and many were ready to help the fire department. Roy and Edna Price moved here from Oklahoma and quickly got involved. Court Fellers, John Schmitt’s family, and others also joined in.
Martha Schmitt remembers that in the early days before anyone had fire radios, dispatch would call Pam Ramsey where there was a fire. Then Pam would call Martha and she would call all the firefighters who had 588 phone numbers while Pam called the others, since it was still long distance then to call between them.
The men had already overhauled the truck engine since they had bought it and now the transmission was gone. Johnny Schmitt donated a transmission and they were back in business, looking for funds again. They acquired a truck from the Forest Service, a 6×6, and Bob Taylor donated a 1500 gallon tank for it. Dick Greer, Roy Price, and others put in a lot of hours mounting it on the truck, so then they had two fire trucks.
Roy Price told Pat Greer that if they could buy a good hunting rifle and raffle it off, they’d make money. Well someone remembers that they did buy a 30-06 and they did make money on it but no one remembers how much.
Things were beginning to roll along. They decided to get an official name. Some liked the Marvel Volunteer Fire Department, but that sounded like they were tied to Marvel and they wanted the name to reflect the larger community. So they went by the Mesa Volunteer Fire Department.
They elected Russell Kennedy Chief and Roy Price Assistant Chief. Donald Kennedy and Jim Greer were now big enough to fight fires along with the rest, but maybe not old enough. Roy Price said they worked hard at it and went to a lot of fires.
Martha Schmitt says the wives of many of the men were involved from the beginning, helping take supplies and food to the fire fighters, baby-sitting as needed, and doing whatever else they could to help. Eventually that group became organized as the Fire Auxiliary. (An organizational flyer with no date on it was found at Station One. We believe this was in early 1987.) It was asking for anyone interested in supporting firefighters to get involved in forming an auxiliary. The names on the flyer were Martha Schmitt, Edna Price, Bonnie Cordell, Pam Ramsey, and Lois Arriza.
The first one to take the EMT class was Nick Schmitt in May of 1981. Emily Hannon, Frances Horvath, and Randy Kennedy started their EMT class in September of 1981. After a community member was killed in a roll-over accident involving a deer, it prompted several to become EMTs in hopes of preventing future deaths. Later Margaret Kroeger, Bonnie Cordell, Doug Ramsey, John Vogel, Kirk Piene and others took the class.
Now that they had some money in the bank and enthusiasm was high, they had offers from other fire departments. Animas Fire was looking very strongly at a merger of the two departments. There were mixed feelings about this. In 1980 petitions were circulated to go in with Animas, but between 1980 – 1981 things changed and petitions were circulated to form our own Fire District. On April 4, 1982, there was an election and the judge said, “You are now a district.” The district boundary lines were set according to the land owners’ wishes. Some requested not to be included within the boundary, but after the department got organized, numerous land owners petitioned back into the district. At the same time the electorate voted to form a district, they voted in a $250,000 bond with a 15 year payoff to help the district get started.
When the district was being formed in 1982, Doug Ramsey and Harry Greer were put in as Fire Lieutenants, with Randy Schmitt as EMT Lieutenant. When the district formation was final, Doug Ramsey was put in as Chief with Harry Greer Assistant Chief and Randy Schmitt EMT Assistant Chief. The first EMTs for the new district were Doug Ramsey, Bonnie Cordell and Margaret Kroeger. (Randy Schmitt, Frances Greer and Emily Kennedy were EMTs before the district was formed.)
A new Tanker for the FLM circa 1982
From then on it was uphill. There was training and training and more training. They got a bond, looked at trucks, and bought a couple. Jim Greer and Clifford Schmid went to New York and drove fire trucks back. They built a fire house at Kline, and there was still more training. The board members at that time were Cliff Schmid, Danny Huntington, Tom Burleson, Jim Greer and Bob Rea. Other early board members included Johnny Schmitt, Roy Price, Leonard Chestnut, Russell Kennedy, Dave Semadeni, Bruce Crawford, and Mark Langford.
Minutes of the Board’s organizational meeting on April 28, 1982 reported that Clifford Schmid was voted in as Chairman, Jim Greer as Secretary-Treasurer (but with Edna Price taking the minutes), and Tom Burleson as Vice-Chairman. At that time they were using a fire station at the old Ft. Lewis campus and the following equipment: one 1957 Dodge pumper truck with 750 gallon capacity, and 450 gallon per minute pump; two Army 6 X 6s, one with pumping equipment and 1,000 gallon water tank, and the other with a 3,000 gallon tank; one 1978 F350 emergency rescue truck and equipment
They had ordered two new American La France, Class A, tanker-pumpers (total purchase price of $73,075.00) with 750 gallon capacity and 750 gallon per minute pumps and two tanker-pumpers on loan.
By Jan. of 1983 the department had five certified EMTs and 23 firefighters.
Pam Ramsey remembers the early days: “Robin Waters, Cheryl Vogel, Bonnie Cordell and I were known as ‘the Day Shift.’ Stay at home moms at the time, we were sometimes the only ones in the district, kind of scary when you think of it. Several of our kids have gone into the fire service. They thought it was normal to have pagers going off in the middle of the night and getting thrown in a car to sit and wait while a car wreck was being cleaned up. They got so tuned into it and having to run on calls that when the pager went off they would grab their blankets and a box of cereal or graham crackers and be waiting by the door. On one call, a toddler Cassie was sitting in the fire truck because she’d been with Doug when he got the call. She knew she had to sit still and not touch anything. A State Patrol Officer approached her and asked what she was doing. She said, ‘My Daddy’s on a fire.’ Is it any wonder she and her brother grew up to become firefighters?
“Several of us ‘girls’ were members–attended training, carried radios, the whole nine yards. Margaret Kroeger joined shortly after as an EMT/Firefighter. In fact, on our very first lightning strike fire Bonnie Cordell, Margaret, and I were the only responders at first. We had one pager between us. We all happened to be at Margaret’s house (the one Bill Stephenson later bought) getting ready for a softball game and saw lightning hit just up behind Meador’s and catch a tree on fire. The guys came along a little later, but we got the truck in place and got things started.” Now, it’s common for women to be firefighters, but in the early days it was more unusual.
While it would be impossible to mention all the memorable calls the Department has responded to, one must be mentioned. In 1994, the 12,000 acre Blackridge Fire was, at that time, the second largest fire in Colorado History. It was also the worst natural disaster ever for La Plata County. The year 2002 would make both those records obsolete.
In the worst fire years, the fire season seems to start out in this area and then move into the rest of the county. The Blackridge Fire was preceded by the Birthday Fire and Morgan Canyon Fire in 1994. In 2002 we had the Cowcamp Fire and the Breen Fire before the devastating Missionary Ridge Fire hit north of Durango.
Get any two firefighters together and you’ll hear a lot of stories of fires and rescues. Doug Ramsey reminisced about one firefighter from Rafter J (the two departments worked closely together until Rafter J joined DFR) who had dressed quickly to respond to a fire. His wife came to pick him up after it was out but, since they just bought a new car, she wouldn’t let him get in with his dirty, smelly bunker gear. He was buck naked underneath, so stripped and got in the car. On the way home, they were stopped at a traffic control stop. The officers looked at him a little funny but let them continue.
Brad Ray also dressed too quickly for a fire, not bothering to put on socks. Later his wife had to take him a pair and tend to numerous blisters.
During one medical call, the ambulance fell off a long, snow-covered driveway. Then it was joined by a fire truck. Finally someone went and got the rescue truck which made it up to the house. Fortunately the man wasn’t seriously injured as he waited for rescue.
One of the “favorite” calls was the Schwann’s truck accident. No one was injured, but the truck was wrecked and the manager said for the firefighters to take all the food they wanted since it would spoil anyway. Lots of families ate well that winter, and the summer picnic featured T-bone steaks that had been saved for the occasion.
A motorcycle versus elk accident also provided food for some firefighters who dressed out the elk there by the side of the road with the lights from the fire truck. (The elk had been killed in such a way that the meat was not damaged.)
The past twenty-five years have seen many calls and much growth.