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Fireworks in Silverton ignite tensions between town, firefighters

DUI crash, reports of drinking raise questions
Tensions between Silverton Town Hall and San Juan County Fire Department have ignited once again after accusations arose that fire department crew members were drinking while tasked to run fire safety at the Fourth of July celebration.

In the aftermath of a chaotic, and at times tragic, Fourth of July weekend in Silverton, longstanding tensions between the town’s administration and fire department have ignited.

“It might come to a head,” said Pete Maisel, a Silverton Town Council member and a volunteer for the San Juan County Fire Department. “But I hope not.”

Relations between the two entities have been strained since October 2015, when newly hired town administrator Bill Gardner had a confrontation with Fire Chief Gilbert Archuleta over a financial statement Gardner requested from the fire department, suspecting misplaced funds.

“In a perfect world, I would have been able to contain my emotions,” Gardner told The Durango Herald a few days after the meeting. “I will plead guilty to being too emotional that night. I will not apologize for seeking the truth for public tax dollars.”

Eventually, the subsequent investigation showed the truth: No funds were inappropriately used. Yet, Archuleta, who felt slighted, resigned from the town’s famed Fourth of July fireworks show, and not long after, his crew members voted 12-4 to also end their participation.

“They spent $25,000 for an investigation that found no money missing,” Archuleta said on Wednesday. “This is all a personal vendetta. The department asked Gardner for an apology for the way I was treated, and when we got no response from the town, we took a vote not to participate in the firework show.”

Gardner was not available for comment Wednesday.

As a result of the severance, the town was forced to spend nearly $40,000 to pay a contractor for a show the fire department used to put on for a cost to the city of a couple thousand dollars. The remainder of the cost was covered through donations and other sources.

On top of that, the location of the fireworks, which were usually set off below the Christ of the Mines Shrine, had to be moved to a less desirable location after the property owners sided with the fire department.

Earlier this year, the fireworks contractor ended up hiring the San Juan County Fire Department for about $3,000 to run fire safety. However, Town Hall officials said events on that day could call into question future budgeting for San Juan County’s volunteer firefighting team.

Just before 7 p.m. Monday, Dylon Hendricks, a Durango resident who volunteers part time for the fire department, lost control of his vehicle and went several hundred feet off County Road 110 into Cement Creek. Hendricks, arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, was scheduled to be at the fireworks display later that evening to run safety.

His passenger, Archuleta’s daughter Amy, was airlifted to Mercy Regional Medical Hospital with serious injuries. She was released Wednesday.

San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said Hendricks and another passenger were not injured. Deputies suspect others fled the scene. He said Colorado State Patrol has taken over the investigation.

To add to the controversy, suspicions have swirled around the small mountain town that firefighters were spotted at the station drinking during the day. Though Gardner was out of the office, Michelle Hamilton, the town’s clerk/treasurer, said the allegations have raised a “concern” among town officials.

“It’s a very serious concern and one that we’ll need to evaluate,” said Hamilton, citing that the fire department is the second largest expense in the town’s budget. “The only talk we had here in Town Hall was that we will be reviewing the intergovernmental agreement between the town, county and fire department, particularly as it comes to budget.”

Maisel denied that any firefighters were drunk while in charge of fire safety during the show. He contended that not all crew members at the picnic earlier that day were scheduled for later that evening, and admonished Gardner for overstepping his boundaries as town administrator.

“Whoever is attacking us needs to come and talk to us,” Maisel said. “We don’t want a fight. It really sucked; we wanted to light those fireworks. What’s happened here is a sad situation.”

Glaring disappointment over the fireworks display on social media suggests the public agrees. Complaints about the show’s location, haphazard choreography to music and overall sluggishness filled the area’s various Facebook groups the past few days.

“I have watched the Silverton fireworks for many years and this ‘professional’ display did not hold a candle to previous years that we have been so noted for!” wrote Silverton resident Gerald Swanson.

Neither Archuleta, Maisel nor Gardner (who was interviewed Tuesday) could answer what it would take to improve relations between the fire department and officials in Town Hall to restore Silverton’s famous Fourth of July fireworks display to its former glory.

Yet, what is abundantly clear is that that’s the desired outcome of most every resident of the small mountain hamlet of about 600 residents.

“It’s a pride thing with us, and we love it,” Maisel said of the town’s extreme passion over fireworks. “We think we have one of the best firework shows, and we love all our friends coming up here to enjoy it.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

This article has been updated to correct the amount of money spent to look into the Fire Department’s financial records.

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