The end of an era: Ruske retires from Grand Lake Fire
February 24 of this year marked the end of an era for the Grand Lake Fire District.
On that day longtime Grand Lake Fire volunteer Chris Ruske officially retired from duty. It was the first time in the district’s nearly 70-year history that a member of the Ruske family was not on call for local fire emergencies.
“I’m kind of relieved,” Ruske said from the dining room of his historic family home near the shores of Grand Lake. “I feel like we can let it go and it is in good shape, it is in good hands.”Ruske’s sense of personal ownership over the Grand Lake Fire Protection District is understandable when considering the history of the organization.
The Ruskes were early pioneers of the Grand Lake area and among the founding members of the Fire Protection District after World War II. The district was actually formed in 1952 in response to a devastating fire that burned down the old Iron Kettle Inn in Grand Lake, which was the Ruske family business at the time.
Over the decades Chris and his father Mac occupied, at various times, essentially every position within the district. During his tenure, which began in 1971 while still in high school, Ruske served as Chief, Assistant Chief, Captain, Rescue Captain and Lieutenant. He has served on the Grand Lake Board numerous time holding various positions.
Ruske said his decision to retire was spurred on by concerns about his own physical capabilities and his acceptance of reality.
“I am 65 and it is time,” Ruske said with a sigh, which seemed to be an expression of both relief and melancholy. “My career before was with Skidoo snowmobiles. It was a tough job. I have been in 17 avalanches, had knee replacement, had several surgeries. I just got to the point where I am too old to do it properly.”
Ruske initially joined the Grand Lake Fire District in Jan. 1971. He was still in high school at the time and the district did not allow for volunteers his age.
“I always wanted to be a firefighter as a kid,” Ruske said. “I talked to the president of the board, my dad, and said I would like to join. We ended up coming together and got a cadet program going.”
During the course of his decades with the fire district Ruske participated in countless calls, saving numerous structures and human lives. He recalled some of his most memorable moments with the fire district, including the night the Grand Lake Marina caught on fire shortly after last call. Ruske, who happened to be lying awake that night in bed, was the first member of the fire district on scene.
“The Lariat had just closed and when the people came out the marina was on fire,” Ruske said. “They called it in. I was the first guy there. I grabbed the drunks coming out of the Lariat and said, ‘here, hold on to this hose.”
Ruske and his impromptu assistants kept things under control as more volunteer firefighters showed up on the scene. Eventually the department got the fire out, saving most of the structure according to Ruske.
He also recalled a particular Fourth of July during the 1970s when he and the other members of the Grand Lake Fire District were deputized by the town marshal to enforce martial law. At the time Grand Lake was popular with biker gangs that would inundate the community during the summer holidays.
“On this Fourth of July it was raining like crazy,” Ruske said. “So everybody went to the bars. People were getting hammered so the town marshal at the time shut down all the bars.”
After shutting down all the bars in Grand Lake and sending the biker gangs out of town the marshal set of the fire district’s emergency siren, used in the era before pagers and cellphones, and called all members of the district to the fire house.
“All us volunteers go down there and we see the marshal,” Ruske said. “He said, ‘I am declaring martial law, you are all deputized now. Meet me back here at 10 p.m. Get your pistols. Bring your shotguns and your rifles.”
The marshal informed Ruske and the others that the biker gangs he had kicked out had threatened to ride back into town at midnight and burn Grand Lake to the ground. Ruske and others set up roadblocks on US 34 near the entrance to the town but thankfully none of the biker gangs appeared in the night. Ruske said the incident marked the end of Grand Lake’s popularity with one percenters.
“I can tell you that when midnight came around I was nervous,” he said. “We were staring to see lights come around the corner, but they never came.”
Ruske said the comradery he has enjoyed over the years with his fellow firefighters will be one of the things he misses most in retirement. But despite the positive memories of his years of service there are elements of firefighting he is glad to be leaving behind.
“There are times when you are going on a fire call, and it is 30 or 40 below, and everything is freezing and burning,” he said with a slight chuckle. “I don’t miss that part of it. But I do miss the fact that you are doing something for people who are having their worst day. It is such a rewarding feeling when they come to you and give you a hug and say thank you. That is what I am going to miss.”
Ruske, now 65, is looking forward to retirement in the near future. He is still working for ATH Specialties driving trucks but he hopes to soon spend more time with his wife and extended family, enjoying a level of freedom he has rarely found practical.
“We have a place in Tucson and a place here,” he said. “We want to do something fun, we want to get up in the morning and say, ‘what are we going to do today?’ And then go do it.”
Ruske will continue to serve on the District’s Board of Directors as Board Treasurer though he has only one year left on his current term. According to Ruske he will be term limited after completing his stint and will no longer able to run for a seat on the board.
“I want to thank Grand Lake for allowing me to be a member,” Ruske said. “I do miss it, no doubt. But it is a young man’s sport. It is time to move on. We have done a lot here. It’s been a great ride.”
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