Fire burns historic barn north of Milner on a night when multiple calls highlight the need for more emergency personnel
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A historic barn burned Friday on a ranch north of Milner during a lightning storm, which officials believe to be the cause of the fire.
It was one among three emergency calls Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters received in the span of an hour, stretching their resources thin. This comes as city officials face increasingly urgent demands to expand emergency services but struggle over how to boost funding.
Steamboat firefighters received a call about a structure fire at about 9:20 p.m. Friday along Routt County Road 46. The caller initially believed a trailer home was aflame, according to Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli, who said that necessitated a larger response.
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Because a home fire could involve victims in need of rescue and pose greater risk to firefighters, all on-duty personnel were called to the scene. Unfortunately, the only fire engine in service was almost 20 miles away, where it had just finished investigating a fire alarm at a residence halfway between Steamboat and Oak Creek.
With the engine so far away, Capt. Travis Wilkinson sent a call for support from neighboring fire districts in West Routt and Oak Creek while an ambulance crew from Steamboat drove a 2,000-gallon water truck to the barn to help douse the flames.
Cerasoli drove from his home in downtown Steamboat to reinforce their efforts. Before he even arrived — at about 9:30 p.m. — Steamboat Fire Rescue got a report of a hit-and-run involving a pedestrian with critical injuries at Walton Creek Road and Chinook Lane.
A Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputy was the first to reach the fire and found it was a barn — not a trailer. No one had been injured, so the ambulance crew left to transport the victim of the hit-and-run to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
By the time Cerasoli got to the barn fire, the roof already had collapsed. He and other emergency responders determined the flames would not spread and that nothing could be done to save the building.
“We all decided it would be better to just let it burn,” Cerasoli said.
Diane Trabulsi, one of the owners of the property, was at her home in Texas when a neighbor called to alert her about the fire. The barn was one of two historic structures on her 1,500-acre ranch — the other being a small granary — and she was sad to hear about its collapse.
“It was an icon on our property,” she said. “We’re just grateful it was not our home.”
Trabulsi thinks the barn dates back to the 1930s and was part of the now-extinct town of Mystic.
Despite its historic value, Trabulsi does not plan to rebuild the barn.
Emergency personnel staffing
Friday’s fire, one among three concurrent calls for service that night, points to a larger issue plaguing Routt County emergency services: a lack of resources to meet the community’s growing safety needs.
Over the past nine years, Steamboat Fire Rescue has not increased the number of full-time staff. Meanwhile, the department has seen a 24% increase in calls for service and a 64% spike in concurrent calls, which is when emergency personnel are working more than one call at a time.
When that happens, firefighters cannot respond to any of the simultaneous calls with a full crew. When the hit-and-run occurred Friday, only one ambulance with two personnel could help the pedestrian. For that type of incident, a fire engine should have assisted the medical team, according to Cerasoli.
Conversely, an ambulance should have stayed at the barn fire in case of any injuries. If the fire had been at a home, as Cerasoli initially believed, he would not feel comfortable sending firefighters inside to help potential victims without medical personnel nearby.
“I’m not going to send a crew inside of a structure fire if there’s no ambulance around to help them,” he said.
Such a scenario — where firefighters want to help in a certain way but don’t have the people and tools to do so — is what keeps Cerasoli up at night. He worries it could lead to injuries or, worse, an avoidable death.
In cases where Steamboat Fire Rescue does not have the resources to respond to a call, officials request reinforcements from neighboring fire districts, as happened Friday.
But Cerasoli said it is not always reliable to depend on the availability of other districts, which are themselves stretched thin.
“You never know who’s going to be available,” he said.
Looking for solutions
For almost a year, Steamboat Springs City Council has been trying to devise a way to close the gap between supply and demand for emergency services, with some progress.
In the most recent budget cycle, council members approved shifting three firefighter/EMTs from part time to full time.
In April, a committee composed of community members proposed two options to increase the budget for emergency services at a City Council work session. One of the budget proposals would levy a property tax on city residents. The second option would levy a smaller property tax in addition to a tax on retail marijuana and alcohol sales.
City Council is asking the public for input on the budget options ahead of the next council meeting Tuesday, May 7.
What: Steamboat Springs City Council meeting, discussion on funding fire and EMS services
When: 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 7
Where: Citizens’ Meeting Room in Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.
To view previous meetings about fire funding and the fire station site selection, visit co-steamboatsprings.civicplus.com/653/Key-Sessions-Topics.
As for Cerasoli, he looks forward to a day when he and his fellow firefighters can respond to multiple calls with a full crew instead of making the tough decision of which call needs the biggest response.
“If we have more people, we can do more things — and we can do them safely,” he said.
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