Hundreds of Southern Teller Rural Residents Confront Fire District Crisis

Huge crowd jams into community hall to demand answers

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

Photo by Cindy Valade

With the temporary loss of a functioning local fire protection district in southern Teller, hundreds of residents are seeking desperate answers.

What happens if they suffer from an accident or have a sudden disaster, involving themselves, a friend or a member of their family? What about the threat of wildland fires this time of year, with fire season approaching? What could they do in the interim to help their neighbors, and to defend their properties? What about problems for the many elderly people in the district?

What about our homeowners’ insurance?

As a result of the serious plight facing the expansive Four Mile area, a district with an estimated 2,500 residents and property owners, a huge crowd jammed into the local community hall last week to demand answers and to develop solutions. The meeting was assembled, following the apparent temporary loss of the local fire department and an operational district, after the prompt exit of veteran chief Tom Hatton and resignation of many volunteers. The current Four Mile Fire Department is not in an operational state, with all service calls now being handled by adjacent districts.  

A rough couple of weeks. Tom Hatton, the former chief of the Four Mile Fire Protection District, was part of a panel that addressed many questions at a community meeting last week regarding fire safety concerns in the area. The meeting featured a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 residents. Photo by Rick Langenberg

The district residents did receive some definite assurances from leaders of the Teller County Sheriff’s Department, who attended the briefing, and patrolled the area extensively last week.  Five deputies and leaders of the agency were in attendance at the community forum on April 27. 

The residents also got vital information from local fire protection experts on preparing for the next disaster, and how to help their neighbors.

But as far as definite solutions for the future of the district, the residents are still struggling with questions. “This isn’t about politics. This is about our community,” said Jon Davidson, a long-time resident of the area, who organized the meeting.

“It is very unfortunate what happened.  The board (of directors of the fire protection district) should not have taken the action it did without a mitigation plan. But that is not what this  (meeting) is about. We need to pull together as a community,” he explained.

Similar sentiments were voiced by Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger. He assured the residents that they will receive coverage from the Cripple Creek, Florissant and adjacent fire departments, and the sheriff’s agency will increase their patrols in the area. “We will get through this,” assured the sheriff.

“Nothing has really changed,” added Teller County Sheriff Commander Mark Morlock, in talking to residents outside the Four Mile community meeting hall about overall coverage in the district. “Our main concern is public safety,” he stressed.

According to the sheriff department commander, adjacent agencies realize they will face extra calls from the expansive Four Mile area, and develop response plans accordingly.   

That said, both Ensminger and Morlock contended that local residents may face extra response times for routine calls. “We are asking people for patience,” said Morlock.  

Most residents appeared satisfied with the sheriff department’s response, but expressed extreme frustration over the lack of answers regarding the district’s plight. Many residents hastily left the meeting hall in frustration. “Our homes are endangered,” blasted resident Kate Wolf. “It is just ridiculous.”

She and other residents cited poor management issues with the current fire district services. “Things ae just not the way you used to be up here.”

The recent controversy, and walk-out of the fire department, has resulted in plenty of finger pointing between board members and firefighters. Other former veterans of the department, though, say they will keep an eye on the situation and take appropriate action, if necessary.

But until the situation with the fire district is resolved, equipment at the local fire station can’t be legally accessed, according to former volunteers.  

Inside the meeting hall, Davidson told the group last week that the purpose of the gathering was to bring people together. “This is about our community,” stressed Davidson. He said community leaders want to prepare residents for disasters and to mitigate their properties during this interim period, when they may not have services they are accustomed to. “It’s a sad deal when you don’t have what you have taken for granted. People need to be prepared,” said Davidson.

Let’s pull together. Jon Davidson, a long-time resident of the Four Mile area, addresses a standing-room-only crowd during a community meeting last week, in wake of problems surrounding the local fire department and protection district. Currently, most service calls are being handled by nearby fire departments in Florissant and Cripple Creek. Davidson and other citizens have started a new website, 4-mile.org., aimed at providing more community and safety awareness. Photo by Rick Langenberg

“We have to help protect ourselves,” said Hatton, who addressed the crowd, along with a panel of other former volunteers and fire safety experts.

Davidson has helped orchestrate a new website, called the 4-Mile community safety and awareness (www.4-mile.org. The newly assembled website describes a variety of resources for residents in mitigating their properties, protecting their homes and preparing for disasters. It also lists forthcoming meetings of the district’s board of directors. “I would urge you to talk to your elected leaders,” said Hatton.

Still, the community organizer faced a tough audience at times last week. “What about our homewowners’ insurance?” questioned several district residents.

Everyone is at risk for losing your homeowners’ insurance,” yelled one resident from the back of the packed room. “Our rates are going to go through the roof,” added another property owner.

“We need to get this resolved,” admitted Davidson. “We need our volunteers back,” yelled a number of meeting participants.

What’s Next?

From a political standpoint, the five-member board of directors of the Four Mile Fire Protection District appointed two new members to fill vacancies in an earlier meeting on April 27. One newly-appointed member is Stan Bishop, a long-time resident and the former undersheriff of the Teller County Sheriff’s Department.

According to report aired on Channel 5 News, the current board is working to appoint a new chief and is collecting applicants for the position. Proponents of the board say their recent actions, in parting ways with the former chief, were done to protect the district and address key management concerns.

But critics of the current board say they have created a rift with the volunteers that may take a long time to overcome. They also cited a lack of transparency in board activities.

At the close of the community meeting last week, a few residents raised the prospects of organizing a recall committee to oust the board. One attorney, who attended the meeting, conceded this is an option, but cautioned the group that special districts operate under different rules. “Unfortunately, this isn’t Great Britain,” said the attorney in describing the lack of clear rules governing special districts in Colorado. But still, he said the residents had some valid issues of concern and urged them to press the current board for answers.   

The next meeting of the district board is scheduled for Wednesday, May 17 at 7 p.m. at the fire station.   

Threat of wildfires looms

In the meantime, Davidson said the group of community activists and former volunteers will continue to provide residents with information through their website. According to Davidson, the main immediate serious threat they face deals with such devastating disasters as wildland fires.

“It is not like we don’t have coverage,” stressed Davidson, in an interview, following last week’s meeting.

But he conceded that if a big disaster occurs, such as a wildland fire, the district won’t have the capability to immediately respond like it has in the past. And in the wake of the Hayman fire, he cited the success of the local fire departments in the area in grappling with these disasters through immediate and aggressive response actions. “We have learned a lot of lessons since the Hayman fire,” said Davidson.

Other issues identified by Davidson hinge on the large number of elderly people in the district, who may need assistance.

But in essence, he says residents are going to have to help each other out. “Everyone here is going to have to help the community the best they can.”