A bill to convey 3.61 acres of San Juan National Forest land to the newly formed West Fork Volunteer Fire Department has passed, allowing for a new station to be built.
The bill — introduced in 2017 by Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, along with Rep. Scott Tipton — was attached as a rider to the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, which passed in December.
“It’s really great and took a real community, grassroots effort by residents and local leaders to make it happen,” said West Fork Fire Chief Tommy Johnson.
The idea for the new volunteer fire department formed three years ago to serve the 86 homeowners and residents of the remote West Fork community in southeastern Dolores County.
In 2017, a contingent of four volunteers armed with pagers connected to the Cortez-Montezuma County Communications Center and donated fire vehicles began responding to neighborhood emergencies.
The first year, they had 15 calls for service and teamed up with Dolores and Rico fire departments on mutual aid calls.
“We participated in some search and rescues at Kilpacker Trail and responded to a couple of fires, including the Plateau Fire,” Johnson said.
The next step is planning and fundraising for a new station to be built adjacent to the Dolores County maintenance yard at mile marker 13 on Road 38, the West Fork Road.
In August, Dunton Hot Springs owners Christoph and Katrin Henkel donated $100,000 to the West Fork fire department to help finance a main station. The resort also built a separate firehouse just down river of Dunton Hot Springs where a brush truck is stationed. Staff is on hand to volunteer for emergencies.
Johnson said they hope to break ground this summer on the new station. He said the community experience in construction trades means they can do a lot of the work themselves.
“Instead of a barn raising, we will be raising a fire station together,” he said. “We’re the epitome of a small volunteer fire department, and are really proud to be doing this.”
So are residents, and not just for the improved safety. Thanks to the new certified fire department nearby, they can now obtain homeowners insurance. Potential buyers were having trouble getting mortgages due to the fire risk from limited fire fighting services.
“Just like that, we hear people are getting approved for insurance,” Johnson said.
The new fire department will also reduce the burden on the Rico and Dolores fire departments, which historically been responding to emergencies in the West Fork area. The main station site is about 27 miles from Dolores and 33 miles from Rico.
Tipton, R-Cortez, said it will also provide a good staging area for responding to wildfires because the West Fork community is within the San Juan National Forest and is more vulnerable to wildfires.
“Frequent and devastating wildfires have ravaged Western states, making it more vital than ever to ensure that every community is prepared for similar catastrophes,” Tipton said. “I am proud of this legislation that will not only help to protect this national forest, but will also ensure the protection of private property and most importantly human lives.”
The West Fork Valley — with its campgrounds, trails, fishing, and scenic driving — is becoming more and more popular, also prompting the need for emergency services.
Donations to the upstart fire department have been generous. Dolores Fire Department donated two water trucks, Dove Creek Fire Department donated two brush trucks and a fire engine, and they also picked up a used ambulance.
The vehicles are ready to roll and are staged on local private property while the new station gets built.
The department’s main staff so far is made up of Johnson, Toby Hamilton, Dan Redburn and Cody Daniels. More volunteers are needed, and training will be provided.
For more information, visit the West Fork Volunteer Fire Department’s Facebook page or email organizers at westforkvfd@gmail