CRFR Chief Leif Sackett works to keep the community safe from fire during summer season
Wednesday was an easier-than-some day extinguishing threats for Leif Sackett. Just a few small, potentially volatile brush fires on U.S. Highway 6 for the Colorado River Fire Rescue chief.
“We’ve had multiple of those kinds of fires this year already,” he said. “Whether it be a dragging chain or a cigarette thrown out, usually those spot fires are hard to pinpoint.”
Sackett sat in his office at Station 41 along Railroad Avenue in Rifle. It’s decorated in firefighter memorabilia, family photos and cooled by good air conditioning. Temperatures on summer days are usually a lot hotter outside Sackett’s office, serving as a constant reminder of the season’s greatest threat.
Wildland fires poses the No. 1 risk to Rifle, Silt and New Castle when the season changes, Sackett said, and CRFR is responsible for covering an 851-square-mile stretch.
Sackett remembers one vividly: a 2008 wildland fire that threatened structures consumed up to 30 acres to a smoldering crisp near Highway 13 north of Rifle. No one was hurt, but the situation could have easily turned out differently.
“The wind was blowing one way, and we were out fighting it, and the wind switched direction and blew the smoke back on us to where you couldn’t see where you were at,” Sackett reminisced. “It blew back on us for only a minute or two, but it was enough to where you had to cover your eyes, cover your mouth, because you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t see.”
This year, the city of Rifle scheduled igniting live fireworks above Centennial Park. It’s the only live fireworks display in all of Garfield County for Independence Day celebrations, and should hopefully satisfy those looking for an aerial explosion or two over the holiday weekend.
“I hope people leave shooting fireworks to the professionals,” Sackett said, his arms folding on his desk. “To me, it’s all about the safety of the community.”
CLIMBING THE LADDER
One could argue Sackett, 44, was exclusively put on this earth to be a firefighter. Both his grandfathers were volunteer firefighters. His father, Steve, was a volunteer firefighter.
Sackett is originally from Cope, Colorado, an unincorporated town less than 50 miles west of the Kansas border. Like many kids growing up in rural communities, he said he started driving around age 11. He also helped in his father’s chemical and fertilizer business.
Like grandfather, like father, like son: By the time Sackett graduated from Arickaree High School (class size 13) and went on to play college football at Sterling College in Kansas, he would come back home intermittently to volunteer at the local fire department. That was 1999.
“I can’t say there’s something that I have or haven’t done,” Sackett said of his career. “Each experience is a little different. But an accident out on the Eastern Plains is not much different than an accident here in western Colorado.”
In 2001, just after Sackett graduated college with a degree in business administration, he met his wife, Celena. In fact, they just celebrated their 20th anniversary in December.
By 2005, Sackett’s father had sold his fertilizer business, which prompted Sackett to enroll in a residency program offered by the Eagle River Fire Protection District in Eagle County. After he finished, Sackett was hired as a firefighter/EMT for the Colorado River Fire District in February 2006.
“Celena stayed home in Eastern Colorado for 18 months while I went through academy and got hired on here in Rifle,” Sackett said. “I don’t know many women who would put up with a husband being gone for that long and not helping with three young kids. She is an amazing woman.”
Sackett now lives in the Parachute/Battlement Mesa area. Celena and he have three kids: Ryley, 20, Kade, 17, and Kyson, 16.
He helps coach track and field and announces during athletics events for Grand Valley High School. He also admits to playing a lot of golf.
BARE TO BARS
There’s a running joke aimed at any CRFR firefighter who can’t grow an impressive handlebar mustache. If the setup is shoddy, it’s considered “dirty,” Sackett said.
“That’s what it looks like,” he said mischievously. “It looks like dirt on their lip.”
In addition to razzing, CRFR firefighters have contests each year for unofficial holidays like March Mustache Madness or No Shave November to see who can grow the dirtiest mustache. The nastier the facial hair, the greater the chances of winning.
Sackett himself sports quite a formidable handlebar mustache. PJ Tillman is a CRFR administrative director of six years, and she knows all too well how challenging it can be for Sackett to maintain.
“When he goes to lunch, he’ll get stuff in his mustache,” she said.
Occasional crumbs aside, Sackett’s dedication to CRFR is spotless.
“He is very driven and compassionate,” Tillman said. “He just gets things done and cares about everyone that works here in our community.”
Sackett started growing a mustache when he started climbing the ladder. He became CRFR lieutenant in 2009 and later battalion chief in 2013 and operations chief in 2016. During this time, Sackett was under the tutelage of longtime CRFR Fire Chief Randy Callahan.
“Everyone has a few people in their lives that have made a difference in getting them to where they are today,” Sackett said. “My dad and Chief Callahan are two of those people.”
Sackett’s father taught him patience, leadership and too many life lessons to list, he said. Callahan broadened his horizons and opened his mind to leadership principles.
Callahan is a lifelong learner of leadership and how it plays into organizational development, Sackett said.
“He introduced me to the concept of courage and vulnerability being the biggest values all people in a position of leadership need,” he said. “He taught me how you can’t be in a position of trust/leadership without having the courage to know you don’t have all the answers yet being vulnerable enough to tell people you don’t have all the answers.”
Facing a budget crisis spurred by a dropping market in oil and gas revenues, Callahan volunteered to retire early in 2020. The same crisis meant CRFR sold off apparatus and closed down one of its stations.
“You’re taking safety away from the community when you do that,” Sackett said. “You’re taking livelihoods away from people if you have to do that.”
In 2020, the hum of bagpipe music serenaded Station 41 as CRFR held its first ever change of command ceremony. Callahan, a firefighter of nearly half a century, officially hung up the helmet, and Sackett became chief.
It’s a moment that continues to fuel Sackett.
“The biggest satisfaction I get from doing my job is seeing our crew smile and have a good time when they’re in the station,” Sackett said. “That translates to them providing a great service. They’re mission focused, they’re values driven.”
“That translates to a community that is safer as well as a community that trusts us.”
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