A deadly fire on Feb. 3, 1880, was the catalyst for the formation of a fire department in Fort Collins, a former military post that was becoming an important town in Northern Colorado. The early morning fire, in a dry goods store owned by Jacob Welch, claimed the lives of the store’s 20-year-old bookkeeper, Tillie Irving, and 24-year-old sales clerk, A.F. Hopkins. On June 4, 1880, several men met to organize the Collins Hook and Ladder Company.
A hook and ladder wagon was ordered from the Caswell Manufacturing Company and arrived in November complete with ladders, a dozen leather buckets, lanterns, chains, rope, and axes. It sat along Jefferson Street covered with a tarp until a fire station was completed in the summer of 1882. The men assigned to the new company started training to become an effective fire-fighting force, but their efforts were hampered due to a lack of a pressurized water system.
Fort Collins’ first fire station was located at 223 Walnut Street. This view was taken in 1888 when the Collins Hose Company and the Fort Collins Hook and Ladder Company were combined to become the Fort Collins Volunteer Fire Department. (Photograph courtesy of Retired Fort Collins Fire Chief Ed Yonker)
This need was made clear on Sept. 15, 1882 when a nearly-completed building, known as the Keystone Block, caught fire in the early morning. It was quickly evident that the bucket brigade formed by the Hook and Ladder boys would not be able to save the building. Instead, the gallant firefighters concentrated on saving the adjacent Odd Fellows Hall and the Poudre Valley Bank. An article in the next day’s Fort Collins Courier described their heroic efforts:
"An unceasing stream of water was poured upon their roofs by hearts that knew no faltering and hands that knew no fatigue, and their gallant and loyal efforts were successful, and the progress of flames were checked at the fire wall between the Odd Fellows’ hall and the consumed Robertson building."
The Keystone Block, along with another building, was destroyed in the blaze. The lack of an adequate municipal water system was clearly a direct relation to the destruction. Prior to the fire, an election to approve the Water Works had already been scheduled for Sept. 20. The bill passed with 182 of the 278 votes cast in favor. Just how much of an influence the fire had on its passing is unknown, but history had already shown its necessity.
By early June 1883, the Water Works was completed and undergoing testing. The Fort Collins Daily Evening Courier crowed about the successful testing with a front page story in a special edition. They said “Had the whole business district been burning the ‘Hook and Ladder Laddies’ would have been able to make a valiant stand against the flames.” The town now boasted two fire companies, each equipped with a hose cart and 1,000 feet of linen hose, nozzles, and the rest of the equipment required to be an effective firefighting force.
The two fire companies operated as separate units, each with its own leader until 1888. On Nov. 14, 1888, the Fort Collins Hook and Ladder Company and the Collins Hose Company joined to become the Fort Collins Volunteer Fire Department. Frank P. Stover, a prominent Fort Collins pioneer, was elected to be the chief of the newly merged department. The chief, as well as other officers, were elected annually.
By 1911, nearly every city in Colorado the size of Fort Collins had replaced its horse-drawn fire wagons with automobile trucks. The city council first discussed making this move in Fort Collins at their meeting on Nov. 5, 1911. It took the City almost three years to put together a funding package to purchase the new apparatus, which cost $4,500. The American LaFrance fire engine arrived on Oct. 22, 1914, and was soon found to be inadequate for the city’s needs. Due to the altitude difference between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Elmira, New York, where the truck was built, the 50-horsepower truck was only registering 40 horsepower.
After several attempts to get more power out of the engine, the City finally gave up and ordered a larger engine. The new 105-horsepower engine arrived to much fanfare in February of 1915. After the engine was unloaded from the Union Pacific boxcar, in which it arrived, Acting Mayor Armitage ran the new truck through its paces and stated “I had it do all the mean things I could think of and I could not stick the machine.” City officials and firefighters were well-pleased with the performance of the machine and the new fire truck was formally accepted by City Council at its Monday afternoon meeting.
Fort Collins firefighters pose with their new motorized apparatus, a 1914 American La France sometime in 1915. (Courtesy of the Fort Collins Local History Archive, Image H05503)
With the new truck came a well-deserved rest for the fire horses. Initially they were moved to a barn behind City Hall. The move proved a bit disconcerting for the faithful steeds. When Old Sailor, one of the current horses, was walked out of his stall for the final time he thought he was getting hooked up to the wagon, as was customary. Even after being removed from the station the horses could still hear the alarm, and every time it went off they would kick at their stalls, trying to get out to get hooked up. Even though they were semi-retired they still wanted to work.
As Fort Collins continued to grow, City Council began to consider implementing a paid fire department. Ordinance number 3-1915, creating the Fort Collins Fire Department, was signed on April 23, 1915, by Commissioner of Safety and Ex-Officio Mayor Samuel Clammer. The Department would consist of a captain, first lieutenant, second lieutenant, and three additional “pipe and hose men.” The monthly pay structure was established as follows: captain, $75; first lieutenant, $70; second lieutenant, $65; and pipe and hose men $60 per month each. In today’s economy the captain’s salary would be equal to about $1,745.75. The department was placed under the immediate supervision of the commissioner of safety and ex-officio mayor, and employees were to be appointed or removed at will.
Chief R. R. McGregor
On Sept. 28, 1915, Mayor Clammer appointed Robert Roy McGregor to lead the department. McGregor was born in Toronto, Canada. When he was in his early twenties, McGregor’s health necessitated a change, and so he came west to Denver. Upon his arrival in Denver he became a contractor. McGregor became a member of the volunteer fire department on Sept. 8, 1893. On Jan. 3, 1896, he was elected chief of the department and served in that capacity until 1903 when he was succeeded by John Cameron. McGregor also worked as a Larimer County deputy sheriff and served as undersheriff for Sheriff Caritan. In the early days of the Department, a car was not provided for the chief. According to Chief McGregor’s niece, Joyce Murphy, he rode a bicycle to work, and to all fires. This could prove difficult when the streets were wet or covered with snow. In these instances Chief McGregor would flag down someone in a car and have that person take him to the fire.
Fire losses during Chief McGregor’s tenure were generally low. Two of the biggest fires of his career occurred at the Fort Collins Express-Courier; one on May 25, 1921, that caused $15,000 in damages, and one on June 5, 1929, that caused over $76,000 in damages. McGregor assisted in fighting both fires and injuries he received during the second fire ultimately led to his retirement in January of 1930.
Chief McGregor was succeeded by Thomas P. Treadwell. Treadwell was born in 1884 near Lincoln, Nebraska. His parents were travelling by covered wagon at the time, en-route to Colorado. He grew up in Colorado City, which is now a part of Colorado Springs. His father wanted him to go into ranching, but he decided on a career in firefighting instead. He spent time with the Cripple Creek, Colorado Fire Department and was chief of the Deer Field, Colorado Fire Department for seven years prior to taking the chief’s job in Fort Collins. Treadwell obtained some notoriety in September 1908 when he was credited with saving ten lives at the tragic Belmont Hotel fire in Denver. He was with the Cripple Creek Fire Department at the time and was stopping by the hotel when the fire broke out. Treadwell coaxed several entrapped guests to jump from the upper floors across a five foot alley to the roof of an adjoining building, catching them in his arms. He was severely injured in the process, and at one point was not expected to survive.
Chief Treadwell spent a considerable amount of time studying modern firefighting methods. At the time of his appointment in Fort Collins, he was serving on a committee of the Colorado State Firemen’s Association that was proposing the establishment of a fire college in Colorado. The Association was working with the Colorado Municipal League on the proposal that would “further the education of firemen in modern firefighting methods.”
One of the first orders of business when Chief Treadwell arrived was the construction of a drill tower at the corner of Chestnut and Jefferson Streets. Construction of the four-story wooden structure began in June of 1930. When completed, the structure was adorned with the words “Fort Collins Fire Dept. Training School Drill Tower.” Treadwell put together study bulletins using articles he found in Fire Station Digest, Fire Fighting and Fire Protection, and Fire Engineering. These bulletins were used for instruction in the classroom, and then the lessons learned were applied, doing evolutions at the drill tower. Some of the subjects covered were care of apparatus, use of chemicals, overhauling, first aid, fire prevention, and laddering.
Chief Thomas P. Treadwell, center, and other members of the Department at the drill tower with the 1929 Model A chief’s car and the 1930 Chevrolet service truck. (Courtesy of Retired Fort Collins Fire Chief Ed Yonker)
Chief Treadwell also began a community service project that would endure for almost 40 years. Firefighters began building new toys and reconditioning used toys to give to underprivileged children for Christmas. Working with the Salvation Army and other community volunteers, firefighters annually turned over about 2,000 toys for distribution; this lasted until 1966. By then so many toys were made of plastic that they were no longer repairable.
The worst loss of life due to fire occurred in a flimsily built barn situated behind 322 Cherry Street. Around 4:36 am on Nov. 19, 1937, Willard Foreman, a newspaper carrier, noticed the barn on fire and immediately alerted the fire department. Police Officer J. B. Thompson was patrolling nearby, and was the first to arrive on-scene. Firefighters arrived a few minutes later, but the barn was already a raging inferno. It was not known that the structure was occupied until Firefighter Cyril T. Howe began playing a stream of water on the flames and noticed bodies inside. The sirens of the arriving fire engine also aroused Vera Maciel, the occupant of the house at the front of the lot, who told firefighters that a family was living in the barn. By that time it was too late to save the six people inside. The Express-Courier reported that the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
The dead were identified as Tomas Acebes; his wife, Sarah, their daughter, Mrs Benita Ortiz; and her three children, Carmelita, 14, Sarah, 11, and Enrique 9. The family moved into the barn about a week before the fire. They had just finished working in the beet fields in the Black Hollow district, and were waiting to get paid before moving back to Denver. Investigation by Chief Treadwell and Police Chief Orville P. Kelley revealed that the fire started when an over-heated coal stove ignited the paper-lined building. The ensuing blaze caused the stove to explode, which ignited a can of coal oil that was in the room.
The worst fire in Chief Treadwell’s career occurred just before Christmas in 1951. Neutze Furniture Store and the Lincoln Hotel shared a two story brick structure at 204 South College Avenue. Shortly after 3 p.m. on Dec. 23, a careless smoker flipped a lighted cigarette through a small sidewalk grating which led to the building’s basement storeroom. About 20 minutes later a customer saw smoke coming from an electric wall plug. He alerted C. W. Southwick, co-owner of the furniture store, who tried to pull the plug, but it was too late. Smoke was already pouring through the floorboards of the south show window. Southwick instructed another employee to call the Fire Department, and then ran to the basement where he discovered flames roaring into the furniture storage area via an eighteen inch wide hole that had burned through the wall. He tried to move merchandise away from the flames, but the smoke was so thick that he was barely able to crawl back upstairs.
Firefighters were on scene within three minutes of the alarm, but the basement was already a roaring inferno and the entire building was filled with dense smoke. Meanwhile, Fort Collins Police Officers Wally Bujack and Ormond Dunlap used fire ladders to rescue seven elderly residents living in the hotel, which was on the second floor. By 5:30 p.m. the fire broke out of the basement and burned through the rear and center parts of the store into the hotel. About two-thirds of the second story floor and one-third of the roof were consumed before the blaze was finally extinguished around 5:45 p.m. Firefighters continued to monitor the scene, and at 1 a.m., the fire was still smoldering. Fortunately this fire did not cause injuries or deaths, but damage to the building and merchandise amounted to over $200,000. The Episcopal Church to the north and a two-story house to the south were damaged by smoke. The building survived and is now home to the Aggie Theater.
When Chief Treadwell took over the Department in 1930 Fort Collins had a seventh class ranking for fire insurance rates. By 1952 that ranking had improved to fourth class. He accomplished this in part by instituting a vigorous training program and requiring firefighters to conduct commercial inspections on their days off. The firefighters did this work with very little, if any, pay. A rebellion by firefighters over this situation led to Chief Treadwell’s resignation effective August 15, 1952.
Treadwell was succeeded by Clifford Carpenter. Carpenter was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on September 30, 1915, and moved to Denver with his family where he graduated from East High School. In 1941 he returned to Council Bluffs where he worked for five years as a firefighter. His father had opened a feed store in Fort Collins, so Carpenter came to the city in 1946 and joined the fire department. He was appointed assistant chief in 1951.
The department had 16 members including the chief, assistant chief, two lieutenants, and 12 engineers or firefighters. They operated on a two-platoon system working an average of 84-hours per week for four months of the year and 72-hours per week the remaining eight months.
The Department was still housed in the original fire station on Walnut Street. It had been shared with other City departments for many years. A new City Hall was constructed on LaPorte Avenue, and on June 8, 1958, all departments, except for the Fire Department moved to the new facility. The Fire Department now had some room to grow. The venerable landmark bell tower was removed and a metal front was placed on the building, giving it a modern look. The size of the apparatus floor was increased, the old door was enlarged, and an additional door was installed. The new arrangement allowed three pieces of apparatus to park side-by-side, making exits quicker. Prior to the remodel, only one truck could exit the station at a time.
The fire station on Walnut Street in 1958 after the building was modernized. (Courtesy of Retired Fire Chief Ed Yonker)
Four major fires occurred in 1965. The most devastating one occurred on June 28th. At about 9:30 p.m., an electrical timer that controlled the lights in the show window of the State Dry Goods store at College Avenue and Oak Street malfunctioned and the brief shower of sparks ignited combustible material. The fire quickly spread, but was not immediately noticed because the darkly painted walls of the show window made the interior of the store invisible from the sidewalk. The fire burned for about an hour, slowly increasing the interior pressure to the point where one of the large windows exploded, showering shards of glass across the sidewalk and into the middle of the street. The oxygen that was sucked inside, caused the interior to erupt into an inferno. By the time the Fire Department arrived, the building was fully involved. Mutual aid was requested from the LaPorte Volunteer Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Loveland Fire Department. All off-duty firefighters were called in as well.
Chief Carpenter was notified of the alarm via the telephone extension installed in his home and responded to take command. He noticed that the south wall had a slight bulge in the middle and decided to go around to the south side to order the men handling the lines to back off. As he and Firefighter Jim Witchel took a 1 1/2 inch charged line in close to the building to check the area where the gas meters were located, the wall collapsed covering Witchel and Carpenter with bricks and stone. Witchel survived, but Chief Carpenter did not. He was pronounced dead at 12:30 a.m. on June 29, 1965.
Aftermath of the State Dry Goods fire, June 29, 1965. The business was located at the northwest corner of College Avenue and Oak Street. Chief Clifford Carpenter was killed when one of the walls collapsed: burying him under tons of rubble. (Courtesy of Lynn Anduss)
Chief Carpenter’s funeral was held on Thursday, July 1. It was one of the largest funerals ever held in the City and was attended by hundreds of citizens, as well as fire chiefs and firefighters from around the state.
Since Chief Carpenter’s death, the Department had been under the temporary leadership of Assistant Chief LeRoy Beers. City Manager Tom Coffey appointed Edward W. Yonker as the new fire chief on October 18, 1965. Yonker was born in the small southwestern Nebraska town of Marion. He was the youngest of three sons and grew up on a farm. At the height of World War II, he joined the Navy when he was just 17. He was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La, which was assigned to the South Pacific. After his discharge in 1946, Yonker moved to St. Helens, Oregon where he met and married Betty Housley. He and Betty moved to Fort Collins in 1947, and he joined the Fire Department in 1955. Five years later he was promoted to lieutenant and that was the position he held when he successfully beat out nine other applicants for the top position. Chief Yonker said he would continue to emphasize department training and planned to improve the Department’s record system.
By 1966, the Department had grown to 28 personnel. This included the addition of five firefighters hired to staff the newly built Station 3. This year also saw a change in the toy repair program, which had been an annual event for the Department since 1932. With more toys being made of plastic, it was getting harder for the firefighters to repair them. Instead, they began collecting new toys, and with donations, had a party for underprivileged children at the National Guard Armory on LaPorte Avenue. Thanks to generous donations, over 1,200 children attended the party in its first year.
By the end of the 1960s, the City’s insurance rating had slipped from a class 4 to a class 5, even as high as a class 6 in some parts of the City. With only 38 firefighters the City was 25 firefighters short of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard of one and a half firefighters per 1,000 population. Entering 1970, Chief Yonker asked City Council for five new firefighters, a new 1,000 gpm pumper, and an aerial ladder, all of which were refused. The Council did agree to set aside about $100,000 for the construction of a new main fire station at some point during the 1970s.
College campuses across the United States were rife with unrest during 1970, and Colorado State University was no exception. During these turbulent times, whenever the fire department responded to campus, they were met at the entrance by campus police and escorted to their destination for their protection. On May 8, 1970, fire erupted in Old Main, which was located south of Spruce Hall. The blaze was discovered just before 11:00 p.m. by campus police officer Don Banks. The fire quickly became out of control when a backdraft knocked out a portion of the north wall within minutes of the Fire Department’s arrival. The Department was further hampered by the lack of water and low water pressure. Chief Yonker told the Coloradoan that the fire was contained within the first hour, but it took 35 Fort Collins firefighters, 15 firefighters from the Timanth Volunteer Fire Department, and numerous student volunteers another five hours to completely extinguish the blaze.
By early Saturday morning, the nearly 100-year-old building was nothing but a shell. Damage to the structure and contents was placed at nearly a million dollars. Subsequent investigation determined that fires were started in six different areas of the building. Attempts were made to burn two other buildings that night as well, but the fires were contained before any damage was done. Over the next several months, hundreds of interviews were conducted and numerous leads were followed, but the person or persons responsible for this tragedy were never brought to justice.
Old Main burns the night of May 8, 1970. Fire investigator, Lt. Jerry Harrison (left) talks with Chief Ed Yonker, at the fire scene. (Courtesy of Colorado State University and the Denver Post)
Around this time, there was a move afoot that would dramatically change the fire service; and the Fort Collins Fire Department was on the leading edge of this change. Prior to this time, the Department only responded to heart attacks and car accidents. The Department chose to begin responding to all medical emergencies within its jurisdiction. This necessitated training beyond the standard first aid course. More medical equipment was added to the apparatus, and the Department often found itself at odds with the local ambulance company, which was run by a private company. Matters were exacerbated when the Department added a Chevrolet station wagon to the fleet in the mid-1960s and Chief Yonker instructed responding crews to take whatever action was necessary to save a life. On several occasions, firefighters transported people to the hospital because they did not think they could wait for an ambulance, which at times could take up to 20 minutes to respond.
The Fort Collins Police Department and Jack Peverly, owner of the Fort Collins Ambulance Service, were opposed to this change in the Fire Department’s mission. The Police Department felt that the Fire Department should only respond to fires. They believed responding to medical calls in the large apparatus would cause traffic problems in the City. Peverly felt the Fire Department was trying to take business away from his company. In a Coloradoan article on the coming of “Rampart type ambulance service,” referring to the style of emergency medical response popularized in the television show Emergency, Peverly accused firefighters of “doing nothing but going out and getting their kicks” regarding their response to medical calls. Firefighters took offense to this slight and in letters to the Coloradoan explained their reasons for responding to medical situations. First and foremost was their sense of humanitarianism and civic pride. Along with that was the fact that the Fire Department had three stations strategically located throughout the City which allowed them to respond anywhere in the City within three minutes, 24-hours a day. As of 2015, over 75 percent of the Department’s calls were medical in nature. The firefighters that worked so hard to bring about this expansion in the Department’s mission had a major impact on the growth and development of this Department over the last 40 years.
After serving the Fort Collins Fire Department for 20 years, Chief Yonker announced his retirement; which was to commence on January 1, 1976. Deputy Chief Tom Fierce was named acting chief in February by City Manager Robert Brunton. At that time, the decision was made to leave the deputy chief position vacant, a move that soon took its toll on Fierce. Fierce said he thrived on the kind of stress he had as a firefighter. “You’re resting and the alarm goes off and the stress level goes way up. You do your job, then it’s over and the stress level comes back down.” He soon learned that the stress level experienced by the chief never came down. The stress started impacting his health and personal life. His eyesight started failing, he developed insomnia and indigestion, and his wife of nine years informed him that she wanted a divorce. Fierce stepped down in June 1977, and Assistant Chief Darrell Watson was asked to take over until a new chief could be found through a national search.
The person chosen to be the next chief of the Department was John Mulligan. The 34-year-old former insurance salesman had over ten years of fire service experience with departments in California. He was a firefighter with the West Covina Fire Department, a battalion chief with the Foothills Fire District, and chief of the Lompoc Fire Department. New City Manager John Arnold told the Coloradoan that Mulligan would begin his new duties in January of 1978.
Chief John Mulligan
The Fort Collins Fire Department hired its first female firefighter in October of 1979. Kristine Linderholm, age 28, was ranked fourth out of an applicant pool of 170. She joined five male recruits from Fort Collins for ten weeks of training at the Aurora Fire Academy. Linderholm, who broke her arm during one of the physical conditioning activities during the academy, was named the top student; a distinction that her male colleagues agreed was well-deserved.
The first female firefighter in Fort Collins, Kris Linderholm, tells school children about her job. (Courtesy of the Poudre Fire Authority Archives)
The Poudre Valley Fire Protection District
Fire losses in the rural district surrounding Fort Collins amounted to $145,028.57 in 1937. At this time, the only way for rural residents to get firefighting services was to pay a $25 minimum charge to the Fort Collins Fire Department. In addition, they had to pay $2 an hour for each man sent, $5 per mile, and the actual cost of gas, oil, and any damage to City equipment. In today’s economy, that would amount to $425, $34, and $85 respectively. This meant that a response was only called upon in the case of a major blaze. Even this arrangement had to be suspended when the city was served with a notice by the National Board of Fire Underwriters that if the fire equipment “went out of the city limits one more time, its classification for insurance rates would be changed immediately and insurance rates raised considerably.”
This prompted area farmers and ranchers to collaborate with the rural school districts to form the Fort Collins Rural Fire Protective Association in 1938. The first purchase was a fully-equipped 1938 Diamond-T rural fire truck, which cost $4,100. A considerable amount of this cost was donated by insurance companies and other Fort Collins businesses. The truck was housed in the rear of the Fort Collins fire station on Walnut Street and staffed by City firefighters. In exchange, the City was allowed to use the truck if a major fire occurred in town. If the truck went on a call in the rural area, two off-duty firefighters were called in so that the City would not be left uncovered. When the engine went on a rural call, the Association paid one dollar per hour for the services of each firefighter including the two off-duty firefighters who were called in. At the end of the yearly billing cycle, monies collected were split equally among all of the City firefighters.
The first rural engine, a 1937 Diamond-T, is used to hang fire prevention signs during Fire Prevention Week in 1955. (Courtesy of the Poudre Fire Authority Archives)
The Association relied on voluntary contributions from area school districts. These contributions were often lacking, which led to a lack of funds to pay the City at the end of the year. In addition, City residents felt their fire protection was weakened when firefighters had to leave the City for a rural fire. This led to a petition that resulted in the formation of the Poudre Valley Fire Protection District on April 14, 1950. The District instituted a one-mill tax levy which would raise about $8,500 in 1951.
The amount the District paid the City would be a continual point of contention. In 1970, the District decided to construct a facility in the central part of the District and staff on a 24-hour basis. By October, the District had hired Dave Danskin to serve as chief. Danskin grew up in Saint Cloud Minnesota and graduated from Colorado State University in 1966. He was 27 years old when he was chosen to head the new department. By November, Frank McLaughlin and Elden Ashbaugh were hired as captains, and Roger Uthmann and Jerry Clark were hired as firefighters. McLaughlin and Ashbaugh were both Fort Collins firefighters. Uthmann was a volunteer firefighter in LaPorte and Clark had 3 ½ years’ experience as a firefighter in the Air Force. The new department planned to use volunteers more than had been used in the past. LaPorte volunteers were assigned to the northwest portion of the district while Timnath volunteers were used to cover the southeast portion. By January 1, 1971, the new Poudre Valley Fire Station on Link Lane, was ready for use.
The original Poudre Valley Fire Department station on Link Lane is shown in 1978. The engine is a 1977 Ward LaFrance. Firefighters are Steve Fleming (L) and Jim Abendschan (R). (Courtesy of the Poudre Fire Authority Archives)
Within the first few months of operation, the new department was busy. Fire loss for January was a staggering $80,485; up from $12,090 the previous January. Most of this came in the first four days of the year. A house fire on January 1st resulted in about $15,000 in damage. On January 4th, a fire in the kitchen of the Black Knight Inn south of Fort Collins caused about $60,000 in damage. Ironically, Fort Collins Fire Chief Ed Yonker and a representative of the American La France Company were just finishing lunch at the restaurant when the fire broke out. After employees failed to knock down the flames with an extinguisher in the kitchen, Yonker ran to his car and grabbed a 10 pound extinguisher. He almost had the fire out, but the extinguisher ran out of chemical. It took Poudre Valley firefighters responding from their station on Link Lane, about six minutes to arrive on scene.
Chief Charles Willis
Danskin’s tenure as chief came to an end toward the end of 1971. There is no mention in the board minutes as to why he left. An undated newspaper article reports he left for personal reasons and that he could not be reached for comment. Chuck Willis, a board member, was appointed temporary chief. He served in that capacity part-time until he was asked to go full-time at the end of 1974.
Having only one staffed station located on the north side of the District had hampered Poudre Valley’s response capabilities on many occasions. In 1976, rural voters overwhelmingly approved $600,000 in bonds to finance the building of new stations and the purchase of equipment to outfit them. Burton Builders was the designer of the two new stations; a 5,930 square-foot masonry structure to be constructed on Harmony Road and a 5,400 square foot metal building in LaPorte. The stations opened in early 1977, and the Harmony Road station became the Department’s new headquarters.
Two Departments Become One Again
The first move toward creating what is now the Poudre Fire Authority occurred in 1978 when Chief Willis and Fort Collins Fire Chief John Mulligan worked out an automatic-aid agreement that would basically erase district lines. According to Mulligan, “when someone has a fire, they [sic] want to see firemen there quickly, and they really don’t care who they are or where they’ve come from.” Under this agreement, the closest engine to the call would respond, regardless of whose jurisdiction it was. The agreement was approved by City Council and signed by the Board in April 1978. Under the agreement, the two departments basically pooled “their manpower, equipment and resources to provide area residents with better service.” Instead of each department having three stations, there were now six stations to serve the area. This cut the response time to four minutes in 95 percent of the automatic-aid area. In addition to cooperating on fighting fires, by 1979, the two departments had combined their fire prevention bureaus, training teams, and some of their administrative functions. Following the success of this agreement, Chief Willis and Chief Mulligan began exploring the possibility of completely merging the two departments.
On November 19, 1980, the Fort Collins City Council approved an intergovernmental agreement which established the Fort Collins – Poudre Valley Fire Authority. The first meeting of the Authority Board of Directors occurred on December 18th. Chief Mulligan reported that in a survey of personnel from both departments, the name Poudre Fire Authority (PFA) was the name preferred for the consolidation. The name was unanimously approved.
“In my 20 years, this is the toughest house fire I ever saw.” That is how Battalion Chief Neal Carpenter described an early morning house fire at 411 Garfield Street that occurred on July 5, 1985. Most residents of Fort Collins were asleep after enjoying a busy Fourth of July when the first alarm came in at 3:11 a.m. When the first two engines arrived two minutes later, they found the home fully engulfed in flames. One of the home’s residents, 23 year old Lisa Nolan, escaped the inferno just seconds before firefighters arrived when neighbors hoisted a ladder up to the roof so she could climb down. Firefighters had the fire under control on the first floor in about 15 minutes, but the blaze continued to rage on the second floor for more than an hour. Once the blaze was out, firefighters began search and overhaul operations. On a secondary search of the second floor, firefighters made the sad discovery that four people had perished in the fire. Two victims were found in a back bedroom and two others, who appeared to have been trying to escape, were in a hallway.
One of the victims, Cathy D’Amelio, had recently broken up with Gregory Bowers, the individual ultimately convicted of setting the fire. The other victims were James DeLaney, Lori Nolan’s fiancé; Todd Ostrum; and Ron Deaver. Bowers’ trial began in November of 1985. Bowers testified in his defense and said, “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt; I didn’t want to kill people.” Bowers admitted spraying lighter fluid in the door and lighting it with his cigarette lighter, but said he just wanted to get their attention and show them how much they were hurting him. The foursome of D’Amelio, Bowers, Nolan, and DeLaney had been like a “happy family” before the breakup. Bowers was not invited to the Fourth of July barbeque and his subsequent anger led to the arson. After a day and a half of deliberation, the jury found Bowers guilty of four counts of felony murder, four counts of felony reckless manslaughter, burglary, and criminal mischief. Saying “he should spend the rest of his natural life in prison,” Judge William Dressel sentenced Bowers to four consecutive life sentences.
Bizarre photographs of firefighters wading through chest deep water while fires rage in the background epitomizes the events that occurred on July 28 and 29, 1997. An intense storm cell developed over Fort Collins early in the evening and remained stationary for approximately four hours, dropping eight to ten inches of rain on the western part of the City. Calls were coming into the Emergency Communications Center at a rate of more than three per minute, and resources were stretched to the maximum. After three hours, the intense rainstorm had created a critical emergency situation with pedestrians clinging to fences in swift-running water, cars swept off roads, and water-rescue incidents in progress at several locations.
Rescue operations taking place in the Johnson Mobile Home Park on the night of July 28, 1997. (Courtesy of the Poudre Fire Authority Archives)
The most serious situation occurred in the area around Spring Creek and College Avenue. To the south, streets began to flood as water overflowed from Arthur Ditch. To the north, water was almost up to the level of several mobile homes at the lower edge of the Johnson Mobile Home Park. At 10:45 p.m. a request was made for Dive Rescue to respond with a boat to start rescuing people from homes along Johnson Street and Spring Court. A plug in an old culvert that ran under the railroad tracks blew out, sending a deluge of water into the middle of the mobile home park. Many of the park’s residents had to scramble to find refuge on the roofs of their mobile homes, in trees, or on top of submerged vehicles. Many were swept into the current and carried downstream.
The deluge of water turned Spring Creek into a roaring river that was more than one hundred feet wide and three to four feet deep. The City was split in half and rescue operations were limited by the personnel and equipment that could respond from that direction. On the north side, additional equipment was obtained when police officers forced entry into Fort Collins Outdoor World, a sporting goods store in the same shopping center as Johnnie’s Liquors. Rescue operations were taking place all along the raging creek in extremely hazardous conditions involving swiftly flowing water, live electrical lines, leaking gas, and burning trailers.
Rescue operations continued for more than two hours and around 162 people were ultimately carried to safety. Unfortunately, not everyone was saved. During the early morning hours, four bodies were found along the floodway. Three of them were identified as residents of the mobile home park. A methodical search by the Colorado Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team throughout the next day uncovered one more body in the debris under an overturned trailer. These five victims were the only deaths, even though earlier estimates had predicted a much higher death toll. There were many lessons to be learned from this tragedy, but one thing was especially evident; numerous firefighters, police officers, and citizens had risked their lives to rescue more than 300 people in a period of six hours, demonstrating a great deal of courage and dedication.
Colorado voters passed the Tax Payer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, in 1992. TABOR limits state and local governments from raising taxes without voter approval and if revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth, those increased revenues cannot be spent without voter approval. The effects of TABOR were starting to have some significant impacts on the Authority by the late 1990s. One of the most noticeable issues involved Station 14. The station was built in 2002, but sat empty until June of 2005 due to continuing budget shortfalls.
Despite continuing budget woes, PFA continued to provide excellent service to its customers. Remarking on a $2 million shortfall in the 2006 budget, Councilman Ben Manvel told PFA officials that they were doing “a heck of an amazing job” with the resources they had. Chief Mulligan said that unless funding increased, however, its effective average response time of five minutes would increase, causing a greater likelihood of injury and property damage.
PFA staff worked with City staff and the District Board to develop a City sales tax and a District property tax initiative that was placed on the November 2010 ballot. Firefighters, including members of the firefighters’ union, Local 1945, worked hard to insure the ballot’s success. Citizens approved the measure and PFA realized a $1.7 million increase in its 2011 budget.
Chief Mulligan announced his retirement in April of 2011. Besides making PFA one of the finest fire departments in the nation, Mulligan was proud of his work structuring national hazardous materials regulations while chairing the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Hazmat Committee. Battalion Chief Tom DeMint was appointed as interim chief of the Authority while a nationwide search was conducted for a permanent replacement. DeMint started his public safety career in the late 1970s and served as a paramedic in Topeka, Kansas. Before joining PFA in 1988, he served as a paramedic with the Poudre Valley Hospital Ambulance Service. The nationwide search generated an initial pool of 78 applicants. The pool was narrowed down to three finalists; Thornton, Colorado, Fire Chief John Staley; Grand Junction, Colorado, Fire Chief Ken Watkins; and DeMint. After two hours of discussion on November 22, 2011, the PFA Board voted to name DeMint chief. Board Chairwoman Lisa Poppaw told the Coloradoan “the public comments all pointed very clearly to Tom, and his integrity, his character, professionalism, enthusiasm – all of those were factors in this decision.”
Chief Tom DeMint (Chief as of 2018)
With a new Chief came some changes. One of the biggest changes was a reorganization which created a new division, the Community Safety and Service Division. The new division would oversee the Fire Prevention Bureau, the Office of Emergency Management, and Public Affairs and Education. Another change was the development of a values-based plan with an eye toward improving accountability within the Authority. The Authority contracted with Gus Lee, the former chairman of character development at the United States Military Academy (West Point), to facilitate the Forging a Courageous Organization (FCO) program. In 2012, every employee of the Authority went through the program
With part of its jurisdiction in the Foothills, Poudre Fire Authority has become skilled at fighting wildfires. Over the years there have been many significant wildfires in Larimer County, but one of the worst was ignited by a small spark in a lone tree above Buckhorn Canyon in the early morning hours of June 9, 2012. By the time it was declared 100 percent contained on June 30th, the fire had burned over 87,000 acres, destroyed 259 homes, 27 of which were in PFA’s jurisdiction, and killed 62-year-old Linda Steadman. During the three-week campaign, hundreds of firefighters from around the country worked alongside local firefighters to battle the stubborn blaze that would be referred to throughout the incident as “a beast” and “a dragon.” Ironically, within days of containment, heavy rains caused mudslides and flooding throughout the burn area. The impacts of this wildfire would be felt for many years to come.
The crew of Brush 37 is working the High Park Fire, June, 2012. (Courtesy of the Poudre Fire Authority Archives)
To meet one of the goals set by Chief DeMint, PFA applied for registered agency status with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) in 2011. A four-member peer assessment team from CFAI arrived in Fort Collins on June 7, 2015 and set to work examining every aspect of PFA’s operation. The team completed its work on June 11th, and gave high marks to the organization during its out-briefing. At their August meeting, the Commission unanimously approved PFA for accredited-agency status. Thus, PFA joined about 250 other fire departments around the world that have attained this prestigious recognition. As Chief DeMint wrote in a PFA wide email announcing accredited-agency status, “Now the real work begins.” Becoming an accredited agency has poised the Poudre Fire Authority for a bright future as it continues to deliver prompt, skillful, and caring service to the members of our community.