Gov. Jared Polis ordered flags to fly at half-mast in honor of Nucla-Naturita Fire Chief Chester Riley, who died in the line of duty while responding to an emergency call on March 20. At Riley’s funeral Saturday, fire and EMS crews from Norwood and other districts near and far came out to recognize Riley’s community service and reputation for always lending a helping hand and looking out for others.

“Chester had a heart of gold and would give anyone the shirt off his back. He was born and raised here, has served with the fire department for about as long as anyone can remember, and his unexpected passing at age 56 was a shock to his family and to our communities,” said Norwood Fire Protection District (NFPD) Chief John Bockrath. “Chester was a dedicated public servant and, just before he passed away, was instrumental in establishing the first mutual-aid agreement between the Norwood and Nucla-Naturita fire departments that we just signed. We’re grateful to him for this legacy of cooperation and for his inspiration for us all to work together in protecting our communities.”

In rural fire districts, particularly in San Miguel and Montrose counties, with such vastness and sparse populations, mutual-aid policy agreements are critical components to public safety. By agreeing to respond to each other’s emergency calls, residents of adjacent fire districts can count on an additional layer of protection with fire suppression, medical emergencies, hazard mitigation and rescue services. Each fire district has more confidence in having more to work with, and can rely on each other by sharing equipment, vehicles and personnel. These increased quantities and capabilities can bring tremendous advantages in difficult situations.

NFPD also recently renewed its existing mutual-aid agreement with the Telluride Fire Protection District (TFPD). A strong example of how well mutual-aid policies can work was seen last year on the Green Meadows Fire just outside of Placerville. Multiple agencies responded to TFPD’s district, and Norwood’s wildland crew was in the thick of it.

Property defense tactics were used that have since been recognized by the six-county West Region Wildfire Council as excellent examples of cooperative fire control and mitigation programs in action. Mutual-aid agreements are especially useful when fighting wildland fires, when more people are needed over many hours and commanders need to shift out tired firefighters.

“By building relationships and becoming familiar with each other’s resources, we can work in harmony with Norwood and other agencies,” said TFPD Chief John Bennett. “This is especially important on more significant events like wildland fires where we need more vehicles, water and people.”

Regional fire districts in the remote West End are so spread apart that it’s not uncommon for an adjacent fire district to arrive first on the scene in a neighboring jurisdiction. The state requires these mutual-aid policies if departments are going to respond outside their territories, and insurance and liability issues almost mandate their enforcement.

“Having mutual aid in place extends our departments,” said Bockrath. “We’re able to do a better job, and it’s comforting to know when we’re on a fire that we’ve got more water coming, and more people on the way.”

Riley was universally known as a caring individual who was always an advocate for his community.

“This mutual aid agreement helps the citizens of Nucla and Naturita,” said Bockrath. “It’s part of the legacy that Chester will be remembered for. We couldn’t have done it without his diligence and cooperation.”