After fighting fires and code battles, Bill Harding retires
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO
What: Retirement party for Bill Harding, former longtime Glenwood Springs firefighter and Basalt fire marshal
When: Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m.
Where: The Orchard in Carbondale
Who: Friends, family and business associates are invited to attend
After 20 years of fighting some of the biggest fires in the history of Glenwood Springs and another 13 years of trying to prevent fires in Basalt, Bill Harding is hanging up his hat.
His last day as Basalt Fire Department’s fire marshal is today. The department is throwing him a party Saturday at The Orchard in Carbondale.
Harding, 63, worked his way through the ranks at the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, starting as a volunteer in 1984 and advancing to a paid battalion chief who administered all staffing and directed firefighting efforts in the field. He spent six years as a volunteer and 14 as a paid staffer.
The Rocky Mountain Natural Gas building fire on Dec. 15, 1985, south of Glenwood Springs was his first major blaze and the experience seared his memory. Twelve civilians lost their lives and additional civilians and firefighters were injured, so it had a huge impact on the community. But Harding said he also learned how much could be accomplished through teamwork among good people.
“The department grew overnight because of that fire,” Harding said.
In the thick of major fires
Nine years later, in summer 1994, he was the West Glenwood division chief when the South Canyon fire blew up during a drought. Harding and his team protected structures in West Glenwood Springs from the wildfire that became infamous for its unpredictability.
While the efforts of fire department personnel and federal wildland firefighters kept the blaze on the ridge, away from town, 14 federal firefighters lost their lives when they were trapped on Storm King Mountain. The winds shifted and the fire overtook them.
Once again, a fire had a huge impact on the community, Harding said. It resulted in better coordination of federal fighting efforts and recommitment to safety among all firefighting agencies.
In 2002, West Glenwood Springs avoided loss of life but suffered extensive property damage in the Coal Seam Fire. It was another spooky experience, with Harding working as a division chief, helping direct the firefighting effort. He said it was dark as night by 4 p.m. on the day the fire blew up. Residents and workers in businesses knew they were imperiled.
“With Storm King, nobody would leave their homes,” Harding said. “With Coal Seam, it wasn’t a problem. It was a ghost town.
“People were running for their lives,” he said.
In addition to the big three fires, another blaze sticks in Harding’s mind as one of the nastiest. The Colorado Department of Transportation used shredded tires as an experimental retaining wall in Glenwood Canyon, near the Hanging Lake Tunnel. In 1995, the wall caught fire and evolved into a wildland fire. The Glenwood Springs Fire Department helped protect and preserve the Colorado River.
Harding recalled the thick, black smoke that rolled off that fire and heavy soot that coated the firefighters. He has battled cancer for the last four years and is now in remission. The firefighting efforts almost certainly played a role in his health issues, he said.
“My cancer is deemed an occupational disease,” Harding said.
That inspired him to leave a legacy of making sure firefighters stay safe and take care of themselves. Before leaving Glenwood, he was involved in training and preparing firefighters all over Colorado. He’s also been able to work toward that legacy in his role as Basalt fire marshal.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson made an offer to Harding 13 years ago that he couldn’t refuse. Thompson said he wanted to tap Harding’s depth of knowledge and experience to help make sure the new development in Basalt was following fire codes.
“We were going through such growth at the time,” Thompson said of the early 2000s. “We weren’t up to speed with what the developers wanted to do.”
Harding “won many a small battle” as fire marshal on issues such as road widths, intersection design, building setbacks and heights. Basalt has expanded its requirements on sprinkler systems, thanks in large part to Harding’s input.
Developers weren’t always happy because it cut into their bottom line. Harding’s motivation was simply the safety of residents once the buildings were occupied and of firefighters if their efforts were needed, Thompson said.
“I don’t know that I’ve worked with anyone who is as passionate about his job as Bill,” Thompson said. “He’s going to be very sorely missed.”
John Mele will be the fire marshal at both the Basalt and Snowmass Village fire departments, which share resources when possible. Brooke Stott will remain assistant fire marshal in Basalt.
Harding said he will miss working with the friends he has made in the department. They were extremely supportive of him while he was fighting cancer, he said.
Harding doesn’t have definitive plans for the future. He will be house-sitting on San Juan Island for a month with his wife, Susan “Byrd” Harding. They have homes in Silt and Paonia and will determine where they want to settle.
He’s already achieved one monumental goal this year. “I was telling my wife, my goal is to retire, not expire,” he laughed.
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