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Voluntary reflex 

The Cascade Fire Department has two fire/rescue vehicles and two engines. Rounding out the fleet is an old truck that can't climb steep hills, says Fire Chief Mike Whittemore.

Supported by a small tax levy that generates about $84,000 a year, the 59-year-old department otherwise makes ends meet with occasional grants, a chili supper in October and a pet vaccination clinic in March. All firefighters are unpaid, receiving only worker-compensation coverage and a retirement pension of $150 a month after 20 years of service.

But when the Waldo Canyon Fire sent up a plume of smoke on Saturday, June 23, threatening Cascade and its Ute Pass neighbors, there was nothing modest about the CFD's response. In coordination with other firefighters from the region and beyond, the local volunteers worked a nine-day stretch of 18- to 20-hour days.

And in a town of 350-odd homes, only one 800-square-foot vacation cabin fell victim to what became the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

"They did above and beyond what would be expected of an agency of their size," says Scott Campbell, El Paso County's assistant deputy fire marshal, of the Cascade Fire Department. "Without them in there, it's questionable whether that community would have been saved."

A way to connect

Back in 2002, 10 days before the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire ignited in neighboring Teller County, Cascade's volunteers and others, including air support, pounced on a six-acre blaze just above the Santa's Workshop tourist attraction and stopped it.

Whittemore, a former engineering manager, was there for that close call. He joined the department 18 years ago, as a way to connect with his community. He's served as chief twice and, with the dozen or so volunteers, makes up to 270 fire and medical calls in a busy year such as this.

At about 7:45 p.m. on Friday, June 22, Whittemore and Co. were told of smoke spotted above Pyramid Mountain Road on Cascade's north side. After an hour-long hike toward the spot, they found nothing. "By the time they got up on the ridge, darkness had fallen," Whittemore says.

The crew returned at 7 the next morning to search, with help from El Paso County and U.S. Forest Service personnel. Again, they found nothing.

The Waldo Canyon Fire was reported around 11; this time, there was no mistaking it. As Cascade and other towns along the pass were evacuated, Whittemore's volunteers once more swung into action.

"It appeared so powerful, so big," Whittemore says. "I said, 'This thing isn't gonna get us.'"

The trained volunteers, five of whom have wildland firefighting red cards, patrolled for flare-ups, removed combustibles such as cushions and firewood from outside homes, and trimmed shrubbery. Knowing the terrain, they went on to guide the Type 1 team, El Paso County and surrounding departments. One Cascade firefighter who owns an excavation company, Dennis Wagner, bulldozed a wide swath above the town.

As the days ensued, firefighters left their jobs and businesses. Volunteer Bud Kreutzer, who plays the piano at The Broadmoor's Golden Bee pub, worked the fire during the day and put on a shirt and tie to tickle the ivories at night, Whittemore says.

"Later in the week, we did welfare checks on people who chose not to leave their homes," he adds. "We turned off sprinklers. We fed cats or other animals left in homes, and we watered plants."

'A lot of reward'

The little department, of course, didn't do it alone. Campbell says at least 50 firefighters and several engines from Fort Carson, Wescott Fire Protection District and Green Mountain Falls and Chipita Park Fire Department helped. But still, he gives Cascade credit.

"It's their homes. It's their community," he says. "Often it's difficult to get [firefighters in that situation] to do what's achievable. We didn't have that problem with Cascade. They listened to us, implemented decisions. They did exactly what was suggested, and they did it correctly. They were part of the team that kept fire out of Cascade."

While the county and Colorado Springs will seek reimbursement from state and federal agencies, Cascade probably won't get a dime. Its volunteers weren't considered part of the Type 1 team's resources, which can be redeployed wherever needed.

Whittemore acknowledges that though they were unpaid, "there was a lot in it for us, a lot of reward in being able to serve in this capacity." He hopes others step up to serve, and already has had a few inquiries from potential new members.

Meantime, the community won't quickly forget. Three banners hang near the fire station thanking them, and residents are making personal gestures. Rhetta Bergman, who lives on Pyramid Mountain Road, delivered a thank-you note with a $250 check, almost as much as the $278 a year she pays in taxes for the department.

"They were right here Saturday afternoon as soon as that plume showed up," Bergman says. "They came back to check to be sure we were out of the house. They're awesome."

zubeck@csindy.com

  • Unpaid firefighters lay it all on the line to stop fire damage up the pass.

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