Community profile: Chris Bornholdt keeps things well-managed whenever public-safety emergencies arise in Garfield County
Call it trial-by-fire, straight from the frying pan into the fire — whatever clever fire cliché you prefer — but there wasn’t a lot of transition time when Chris Bornholdt became Garfield County’s emergency manager back in the summer of 2007.
“It was my first day on the job, and we were down in Rulison driving back to Glenwood to go to the office, because I hadn’t even been there yet,” Bornholdt recalls of that summer he became acting emergency manager for the county.
“That’s right when the New Castle fire started, so we headed there, and I got thrown right into it dealing with a wildfire from the sheriff’s side of things,” he said of a fire that sparked just west of Canyon Creek and was threatening to burn over the ridge into Canyon Creek Estates.
The former Glenwood Springs Fire lieutenant, who had worked structure protection during the 2002 Coal Seam Fire that burned several houses in West Glenwood, was put in charge of making sure the structure division working the fire at Canyon Creek had the resources it needed.
That fall, Bornholdt officially took the position as county emergency manager.
Thus began a long career that continues today for Bornholdt, 49, who lives in Rifle and works under the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office to prepare for and coordinate things whenever a major incident — be it wildfire, floods, a hazardous materials spill or public health/safety emergency — happens in the county.
He has also climbed the ranks statewide, now chairing the Northwest All Hazard Emergency Management Region executive board and the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s All-Hazard Advisory Committee’s Training and Exercise Subcommittee, and serving on the Northwest Region Health Care Coalition board.
Since September 2020, Bornholdt has worked with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service on a Garfield County Emergency Watershed Protection Program, acting as liaison between the landowners and Garfield County to deal with the impacts of recent wildfires.
And he chairs the Garfield County Local Emergency Planning Committee.
In recognition of his efforts, Bornholdt was awarded earlier this year with the prestigious President’s Award from the Colorado Emergency Management Association (CEMA) for his leadership during recent disasters affecting the county and region, including the Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch fires in 2020.
“There are other awards given out to emergency managers in Colorado, but this one goes beyond the rest,” said Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, who joined a contingent of local officials in attending the February awards ceremony in Loveland as a surprise to Bornholdt.
“Chris has amassed an enormous amount of experience that he brings to Garfield County, the region and the state,” Vallario said. “It is often said that an emergency manager has all of the responsibility but no authority. Given that, he must cooperate and collaborate with numerous agencies including fire services, law enforcement, CDOT, FEMA and many more to provide the best emergency management services possible to keep our community safe.
“We’re very fortunate to have Chris in Garfield County,” Vallario said.
Springs to Springs
After graduating from Widefield High School near Colorado Springs, Bornholdt spent four-and-a-half years in the U.S. Navy. Among his missions during that period from 1992-96 was to assist with the Haitian refugee crisis off the coast of Florida.
He recalled one makeshift flotilla constructed of maybe 16 wood pallets with 50 people sitting on the partially submerged craft. Their job was to pull the people up onto the flight deck of the aircraft carrier and render medical attention, then get them to safety.
Post-service, Bornholdt joined the El Paso County Wildland Fire team and also worked as a plumber. He eventually earned his EMT and firefighter 1 certification and joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department, then worked for the Pueblo Fire Department.
Married by then to his wife, Stephanie, and with two young sons, the family decided to move to Glenwood Springs when he was offered a job with the Glenwood Fire Department in 2001.
His many years of work as a firefighter and EMT locally, and especially his experience with wildland fires, eventually lured him over to the Sheriff’s Office when former county Emergency Manager Jim Sears was getting ready to retire.
“I like emergency management work because it has given me a broader view of what’s going on in the county,” Bornholdt said. “When I was with the fire department, it’s pretty much one EMS call after another, or a structure fire.
“Once you get to this level, you’re seeing the county as a whole and working with multiple police and fire departments and municipalities, and county Public Health … so it’s more about helping all of the agencies and departments do the planning, get the resources they need and making sure they’re prepared when something happens.”
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bornholdt also served in the unified command as co-incident commander along with then Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long.
“I also like it because I’m not doing the same thing every day,” Bornholdt said. “One day I’m working on wildfire protection plans, and then I’m helping the call center with communications, and then I’m helping the hospital with something, and then we’re working on the hazard mitigation plan. So it’s always something different.”
Prepping for wildfire season
Bornholdt is used to large and frequent fires in Garfield County. The Pine Gulch Fire that eventually burned 130,000 acres in the far western part of the county in 2020 was the largest fire in the state for two weeks before the massive Cameron Peak Fire broke out in the northern part of the state, ultimately burning nearly 209,000 acres.
The Grizzly Creek Fire that same summer wasn’t nearly as large in terms of acreage, but forced Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon to be shut down for almost two weeks.
“Garfield County probably has more wildfires than any other county in the state,” Bornholdt said. “Other counties and states have had a lot more acres burned than us, but if you look at just the sheer number of fires that we have in Garfield County, it is more than anybody else.”
That means inter-agency relationships have to be strong, which is part of his job.
“We have good relationships between our fire departments here and the BLM and Forest Service, and I think that really helps in those big events,” he said.
The Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch fires were particularly difficult because of their geographical location. Both fires greatly impacted Garfield County, but because they straddled the Eagle County line in the case of Grizzly, and the Mesa County line in the case of Pine Gulch, the incident commands were established in those counties.
“So I was busy spending the morning at one fire and the afternoon at the other fire and was back and forth quite a bit,” Bornholdt said.
He was quick to acknowledge Garfield County Sheriff’s Sgts. Chad Whiting and Levy Burris for their assistance during that and other periods of time when resources were stretched thin.
During the 2018 Lake Christine Fire near Basalt, Bornholdt also provided assistance to Eagle County Emergency Manager Barry Smith.
“Any time there’s an incident, we’ll help each other out across county lines as emergency managers,” Bornholdt said.
Because Garfield County borders Utah on the far west end, his work also involves coordination across the state line.
To prepare for the upcoming wildfire season, which state officials are predicting could be the worst yet, Bornholdt has been offering assistance to local agencies in updating and implementing their wildfire protection plans, including mitigation efforts on the part of homeowners.
The county also has a part in Glenwood Springs’ wildfire evacuation planning efforts.
Day in the life
Bornholdt is now the second-senior county emergency manager in northwest Colorado — a job that keeps him busy attending and in some cases running meeting after meeting when there’s not an ongoing incident.
Checking his schedule on the week this interview was conducted, Bornholdt had duties to perform for an I-70 corridor planning meeting, a training and planning session with hospital staff, a regional vaccination clinic, a community wildfire protection planning meeting, a state Homeland Security Advisory Council meeting, a planning meeting for an active shooter exercise that’s coming up in June, a triage training and a Northwest Region Healthcare Coalition meeting.
“He’s a mentor, helps with training, and provides advice while working hand in hand with other emergency managers,” Vallario said. “It’s a very impressive reason for the CEMA president to bestow this award.”
Bornholdt said he doesn’t do the work with the goal of receiving awards.
“I didn’t really expect it,” he said of the CEMA President’s Award. “That’s not something I’m thinking about, so when it happens, it’s nice. I was surprised.”
Bornholdt was also recently elected to the Rifle City Council and is now assisting the city with its local emergency management planning.
His wife, Stephanie, works at Commonwealth Title, and their two sons are now grown; the oldest, 25, soon to graduate college with a master’s degree, and the youngest, 24, who also now works in the jail division of the Sheriff’s Office.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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