Pingree Park employees provide food, beds to High Park Fire crews

Students swing from the Giant Swing at the Pin...
Students swing from the Giant Swing at the Pingree Challenge Ropes Course. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Pingree Park was evacuated on June 12 due to the High Park Fire, CSU senior natural resources major Kelsey King went rock climbing in Crested Butte with nine other staff members.

They received phone calls on June 15 between one and two p.m. telling them Pingree Park, CSU’s mountain campus, would be set up as a spike camp to house firefighters and asking if the staff would return to work.

“We were so excited to be given the opportunity, so we packed up all of our camping stuff and got back to Fort Collins as fast as we could,” King said.

Other employees responded the same way, coming from as far as Lander, Wyoming, and 24 returned to Pingree on June 16 to help however they could.

“Our main mission is to feed and support these fire crews from all over the country,” Pingree Park Director Patrick Rastall said. “They sleep in tents, some of them sleep in out buildings, it’s like a little city up here.”

The Pingree staff serves breakfast and dinner in the camp’s dining hall, while the fire crews eat military MREs for lunch.

Breakfast is served from 5:30 a.m. until 8 a.m., while dinner begins at 8:30 p.m. and can last until as late as 11 p.m. depending on when the last firefighters return.

“They have a basic caloric requirement of 6,000 calories a day,” Rastall said. “They go crazy out there with all of the energy they burn.”

Due to the large number of firefighters housed in Pingree at a given time, as many as 180 per me
al, the food preparation staff needed to be flexible in its scheduling.

“A lot of times we’ve ran out of our main course and we always have to think on our feet and create a backup plan,” King said.

Often the kitchen staff will make lasagna or spaghetti due to the small amount of prep time it requires and the amount of calories it can quickly provide.

Regardless of what they are served, the firefighters are grateful for a hot meal and a place to sleep after a long day on the front lines.

“They have been so thankful for it. It was so cool looking at their faces the first night they came in. I think they weren’t expecting to be provided what they were,” said Courtney Lornz, a sophomore music education major at Northern Colorado and member of the kitchen staff. “It’s cool just seeing the smiles they give to us at the end of a very long work day.”

For many of the students working at Pingree, it’s being able to make this kind of difference that matters. They are being paid for their time, but made the volunteer effort to return out of want to help in any way possible.

“It was really frustrating being in town and feeling like there was nothing you could do about (the fire). You could drive five minutes to the West and watch the flames take over the mountain, feeling so insignificant like there was nothing you could do,” Lorenz said. “We’re not out there with the hoses, but we’re here waiting with food and beds for the people who are out there doing that. We share that attitude as a staff and it’s a really amazing thing.”

The staff of Pingree Park came back with the goal of helping firefighters, and the administrative staff beams with pride at their effort and enthusiasm.

“It’s been extremely impressive to see how they’ve stepped up into this role. They volunteered for a big adventure with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity,” Seth Webb, assistant director and CSU alumni, said. “They have operated under demanding, intense conditions in unusual circumstances. It confirms for us that we have an excellent staff for this season.”

Working long and busy hours has made the staff grow closer together due to the feeling of a collective purpose.

“These people are heroes. To be able to do one small, tiny part by giving them hot meals feels incredible,” King said. “It’s something that is a once in a life opportunity and I’m really grateful to have the feeling of doing my part.”