After 34 years of service, Bart Lassman, chief of Wood River Fire & Rescue, will retire on Oct. 3. His career began as a volunteer firefighter and evolved during the past 21 years to chief, a role he said he has been honored to fill for the past two decades.
Originally from Minneapolis, Minn., Lassman, 66, moved to the Wood River Valley in 1974 for a few runs on Bald Mountain before returning for his final year of college. He never left. Now, 45 years later, Lassman looks at his retirement as any true skier would: It’ll mean more runs down the hill and more time for adventuring. Beyond skiing, Lassman found his life-calling—firefighting—and his wife here.
He began as a volunteer firefighter with the Sun Valley Fire Department in the 1970s, working 24-hour shifts.
“Immediately, I fell in love with the whole thing, giving back to the community in that capacity,” he said.
Besides being an adrenaline junkie, he was fascinated with the field of fire science, something he previously had no experience with. In Minnesota, he had been studying art, encouraged by his parents who saw his artistic abilities. But just shy of a college degree, he instead decided to pursue a career in firefighting, something that his parents were disappointed in initially. But for Lassman, firefighting held the passion he had been looking for.
“I felt like I had found my calling,” he said.
While working at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum between 1974 and 1986, Lassman tried to respond to as many calls as possible, absorbing the thrill of responding to fires and soaking up as much knowledge as possible along the way. In 1989, he was hired on as a full-time firefighter/EMT with Wood River Fire & Rescue, which serves a vast territory in southern Blaine County. In 1994, he was promoted to assistant chief, and in 1998 to chief, the position he would retain for the next 21 years.
“Things kind of fell into place,” he said of his advancement into management. Within the same month, June of 1998, Lassman bought a house and married Evan Lister Stelma, who was also a firefighter, as well as a dispatcher.
“Suddenly, I didn’t have to work in restaurants and construction anymore,” he said.
Besides working at the Pioneer, Lassman also made wood furniture on the side, and worked as a ski patroller on Dollar Mountain.
He attended the National Fire Academy, “to hone my craft,” and gain the command skills necessary for his new role.
“I was a lucky person to have things go my way,” he said.
Since then, he has witnessed how the county has grown and evolved, and has watched as nationwide standards have changed and been strengthened since 9/11. The changes have improved safety for first responders, including firefighters, and enacted stricter guidelines on equipment and maintenance. The increased safety has been reflected in the price tags, as gear has become more technical and therefore more expensive to buy and maintain.
“It’s all to protect not only the firefighters, but to do our job more safely,” Lassman said.
Mental health has also made its way into national conversations, spurring legislatures to make significant changes to work-comp plans that allow for first responders to claim PTSD and receive the same coverage they would as with a physical injury on the job. Over the past five years, Lassman said, he’s seen the shift in public perspective, with more people recognizing not only the impact on first responders but also on their families, who often bear witness to the effects of the job.
“When I started, people would tell you to suck it up,” Lassman said. “Now it’s become a bigger issue where you need to reach out and/or there needs to be more access to mental health professionals.”
Increasingly, the idea of risk/benefit analysis is used to keep firefighter safety at the forefront of every disaster, and more standards on training and formulating plans for fire suppression manage the balance of safety to the public and safety for first responders.
“We risk a lot to save a lot,” Lassman said.
Over the years, Lassman has aided Wood River Fire & Rescue through four Type-1—the highest and most complex level of incident—wildfires throughout the county: The “Ro” Fire in August 1992 was ignited by lightning and consumed about 21,000 acres from where it began 2 miles up Croy Creek west of Hailey and destroyed an estimated 10 structures; the Castle Rock Fire in 2007, which burned for 20 days and burned 48,520 acres of Smoky Mountain backcountry, threatening residential neighborhoods from where it began south of Warm Springs Road near Castle Rock; the Beaver Creek Fire in 2013, which began in Camas County and consumed 111,490 acres in Blaine County, making it one of the largest wildfires in the county’s recent history; and the Sharps Fire last summer, which burned 65,000 acres over a two-week period 6 miles east of Bellevue.
Lassman said that during times of wildfires, or smaller incidents throughout the county, maintaining open communication with the public and with media has been invaluable, that having an open line of communication and sharing information is key to keeping the citizens informed and suppressing false information before it is spread.
Through it all, Lassman said, his wife has been steadfast in supporting him.
“I owe a lot of my success to my wife,” he said.
Because Stelma has also worked as a firefighter, she understands the stresses of the job and has been his rock.
“It hasn’t been easy for her, but we’re both looking forward to sleeping through the night,” Lassman said jokingly.
After 21 years of marriage, he said, their relationship has been built on open communication and on always lending a listening ear.
“We have that kind of relationship where we can bounce things off each other—it’s just respecting what she has to say,” Lassman said.
Now that retirement is on the horizon, Lassman said he looks forward to more runs on the ski hill, more time for gardening with his wife and more free time for sleeping in, traveling and exploring more parts of Idaho. He said he has no plans to return to firefighting.
“I think I’ve served the district well. I’m proud to have been called the chief,” he said. “It’s been a real honor.”
No replacement for Lassman has been announced, and the job is still being advertised online.