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Fort Lewis Mesa volunteer firefighters carry on family legacy

Twenty-eight volunteers serve 2,093 residences with no pay, odd hours and big red trucks
A passion for volunteerism has been passed down through four generations of the Greer family. Rusty Greer, left, Isaac Greer, 17, and Harry Greer embody the dedication of the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District southwest of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In a world buzzing with trendy side hustles like being a brand ambassador or grocery delivery driver, there's a gig that has stood the test of time since 1736. Enter volunteer firefighters, who spend their spare time charging into blazing infernos.

The Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District in Hesperus is powered by 28 people who thrive on this exhilarating “side hustle,” minus the actual hustle of earning extra cash.

“You just feel an obligation to serve the community and take care of people in times of need,” said volunteer firefighter Rusty Greer. “And we get to drive big red trucks.”

Sixty percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers who can face any number of calls, including a cat stuck in a tree, roaring wildfire, multicar pileup or house on fire with people trapped inside. Akin to Fort Lewis Mesa, 80% of fire departments in the U.S. are powered entirely by volunteers.

Pat Greer, one of the founding members of the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District, sits in his home in 2012 after it was burned to the ground in 1961. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The birth of the rural fire department west of Durango can be traced back to Pat Greer, Rusty Greer’s grandfather, whose homestead in Marvel burned to the ground in 1961. In response to the tragedy, Greer and his neighbors rallied to acquire a fire truck.

Despite lacking training, funds and a proper facility, the group was determined to protect the community from future disasters.

“They didn’t have a garage to keep the truck in so they housed it in different people’s yards depending on the time of year. That’s where it all started,” Greer said.

Fort Lewis Mesa’s first fire truck in 1964. (Courtesy of Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District)

Fast forward to 1982, the group of neighbors who spent years fundraising, garnering community support and battling fires with just one truck were officially recognized as the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District.

Carrying the torch of his father’s passionate endeavor, Harry Greer led the district as its second chief in 1986.

Today, the Greer family’s commitment to service persists as Harry’s son, Rusty Greer, serves as a third-generation volunteer.

“While I had been raised in it, it was never shoved in my face,” Rusty Greer said. “I was really attracted to the brotherhood, camaraderie and willingness to help people.”

Greer, a mechanic for Wagner Equipment, is a husband and father to three boys. He embodies the spirit and dedication that defines the fire department.

“A lot of the times I’ll drop what I’m doing and leave my family to go help a community member,” he said. “I have to make that choice, and it’s very hard sometimes.”

Rusty Greer’s 17-year-old son, Isaac, continues the legacy as a fourth generation volunteer. Isaac Greer is a member of the fire department’s junior program, where teenagers can learn the basics of firefighting and participate in training.

Rusty Greer’s volunteer firefighter journey also started in the junior program.

“I was a junior back in 1998, and it’s enlightening to be able to share the experience with my son,” he said. “It’s really fun when we get to run calls together.”

Four current members of the department also started their careers in the junior program. Travis Schmitt, a third generation volunteer, was a junior alongside Rusty Greer and serves as the department maintenance officer 24 years later.

“Rusty and I grew up playing in the fire trucks,” he said. “I always dreamed of it, you know, it was just the thing to do.”

Schmitt’s grandfather, John Schmitt, stood among the dedicated neighbors who united with Pat Greer to protect the rural community in the 1960s. He served on the department’s inaugural board of directors.

Nick Schmitt emulated his father’s passion and became the district’s first emergency medical technician certified volunteer in 1981. He later assumed the role of EMS captain, leading the district’s emergency medical services for 15 years.

“It’s in my blood,” Schmitt said. “My grandfather was on the board side and my dad was on the firefighter side, and it’s cool to have both of those experiences.”

Schmitt said both of his children plan on participating in the junior program when they turn 16, which will make them fourth generation FLMFPD volunteers.

The district conducts a basic firefighter course every fall, adhering to the Colorado state fire training protocol.

“You don’t just learn about how to fight a fire in training,” Schmitt said. “People don’t realize that there are so many jobs and roles to fill on an emergency call.”

Schmitt said some positions require less physical exertion, such as directing traffic on an accident scene, prepping equipment, or setting up scene lights. Individuals can also take on more strenuous duties like providing medical aid, breaking through debris, or using fire hoses to extinguish flames.

“That’s the cool thing about being a volunteer. You can find a place that works for you, where you can benefit your community,” he said.

Upon completing the basic firefighter course, many volunteers pursue further training to be certified in advanced practices. Schmitt achieved level one certification and subsequently advanced to become a level two firefighter, an engine boss qualified in wildland and as an EMT.

Chief John Lee said the department offers funding for upper level training. The training is mostly available online or at larger facilities like Durango Fire Protection District or Pueblo Community College.

“The most valuable thing that our volunteers give us is their time,” Lee said. “If they want to become an EMT and bring those skills back to our department, then I’ll do whatever I can to get them there.”

After a distinguished military career with two deployments in Afghanistan, Lee became Fort Lewis Mesa Fire chief in 2017. Although he is not a certified firefighter, his background as a U.S. Army major sergeant has proved invaluable.

Lee said he was motivated to bring his skills in recruiting, leadership and team building to the Fort Lewis Mesa district.

“A lot of people think that volunteer firefighters are not as qualified as career firefighters, because otherwise it would be their job,” he said. “That is just not the case, everyone goes through the same training and gets the same certification.”

The Fort Lewis Mesa volunteer squad is comprised of nine females and 19 males, between the ages of 16 and 60.

“The generations of commitment that have carried this department is what captures me,” Lee said. “We operate as a team, and we do it for our neighbor.”

In 2022, the team of 28 volunteers responded to 258 calls. The district is responsible for 2,093 residences and 357 square miles.

“They leave their dining room table, wake up in the middle of the night, or come out on a holiday weekend to do the job,” Lee said. “It’s part of the reason I’m still doing this, because I think the mindset of a volunteer is priceless.”


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