The Ketchum Fire Department is adjusting to a void in its ranks this week, after the retirement Friday of longtime Assistant Fire Chief Tom Ancona.
Ancona—who first joined the department 36 years ago—spent his final days on the job last week doing some of what he typically did as the second-ranking fire official for the city: tasks ranging from doing payroll for dozens of employees to performing safety inspections at residences and businesses.
City staff said goodbye to Ancona, but precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus stifled opportunities for a celebration that could reflect 36 years serving the city. On Friday afternoon, city officials set up a “grab and go” lunch for the assistant chief and other staff. There are plans to give him a key to the city.
“Tom’s service, loyalty and commitment to his craft is exemplary and I am truly thankful for all that he has contributed to our community,” Mayor Neil Bradshaw told the Idaho Mountain Express. “His professionalism, honesty and humor will all be missed.”
Ancona, 60, moved to the Wood River Valley in 1984 from southern Connecticut, where he started his firefighting career. In high school in the suburban town of Wilton, he took an elective class on firefighting and rescue operations. He learned about CPR, how to handle ropes and ladders, and how firefighters went about their days.
“I was hooked,” he said.
Ancona took a job with the Wilton Fire Department in 1976 and later the nearby Westport Fire Department in 1980. In the meantime, in 1978, he made a trip to the Wood River Valley, and the groundwork was set for something far different than working in the busy corridor of Interstate 95 north of New York City.
“I kept visiting and decided I had to live here,” Ancona said. “It was a quiet, little place back then.”
In March 1984, he joined the Ketchum Fire Department as a volunteer. He worked his way up through the ranks, aided by the experience and skills he had gained in Connecticut. Ancona became a full-time captain in 2000 and served in that position for 15 years, before he was promoted to assistant chief and marshal.
A key component of Ancona’s work has been to serve as operations chief, managing emergency calls and commanding major incidents. He has also served as an instructor for the state of Idaho for 30 years and helped establish the state’s procedures for extricating victims from vehicles after car crashes. He has responded to hundreds of car accidents—many in Connecticut—and scores of structure fires in his career, he said.
In the 1980s, “terrible” car accidents were common on state Highway 75 in Blaine County, Ancona said, in part because cars and trucks were not built as well then.
Ancona said his favorite thing about fighting fires and performing rescues in central Idaho is the diversity of the work and the settings. He has been escorted to incidents in helicopters, has rescued injured people from mountainous terrain and has saved the lives of injured animals, too.
“It’s a really demanding job,” he said. “It’s really exciting.”
In 1992, Ancona was a leader in rescuing two women injured and stranded on Castle Peak, in the wilderness north of Ketchum. He was flown to the side of the massive mountain by helicopter, he recalled, but was immediately put in danger when he became caught in some webbing that was hooked to a bolt on the chopper. He eventually made it onto the mountain, rappelled down to the ledge where the women were stranded and administered first aid, in part by making a medical sling out of a tarp. Working for 14 hours straight, Ancona and crews brought the pair down the mountain—partially through snow chutes—to safety. They met the helicopter at the base at 7 a.m.
“We were rappelling down all through the night,” Ancona said.
Ancona has also been on the front lines of several major wildfires in Blaine County. He was in charge of protecting structures during the Castle Rock Fire in 2007, which burned nearly 50,000 acres on the west side of the Wood River Valley. He also managed structure protection during the Beaver Creek Fire, which burned an additional 111,000 acres in western Blaine County. Both fires burned into the Greenhorn Gulch drainage, south of Ketchum.
“It was a nightmare both times,” Ancona said.
Ancona was the city’s acting fire chief during the Sharps Fire, which burned nearly 65,000 acres of forest and grasslands on the southeastern side of the valley in 2018. He saw the famed Whiskey Jacques’ bar and restaurant burn in a tragic fire in downtown Ketchum in 2008 and helped fight the blaze that in 2018 burned parts of Warm Springs Lodge, the iconic Sun Valley Resort day lodge at the base of Bald Mountain.
Ancona said the goal of fighting the Warm Springs Lodge fire was to keep the flames from consuming the massive logs that composed the main frame of the structure, and to protect the roof. The giant logs, he said, are irreplaceable.
“We were able to do all that pretty well,” he said.
In the end, enough of the lodge was saved that it could be rebuilt without demolition.
“Those big fires are the ones that really stick in your mind,” Ancona said.
As Ancona thinks about what wildfires in the West will look like in the future, he is concerned. Global warming is a scientific truth, he said, with the consequences being drier conditions, warmer temperatures and longer fire seasons.
“It’s a proven fact,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s going to get better.”
Cities and counties in dry parts of the West will likely have to adopt additional codes governing development in “wildland interface” zones, he said.
“The weather patterns are changing,” he said.
As for his plans for retirement, Ancona said he intends to maintain his residence in the Cold Springs neighborhood, south of Ketchum. He plans to go cross-country skiing and to pursue other outdoor activities, including taking some extended trips on his motorcycle. After all, he said, getting blocks of time off wasn’t always easy in his position, and the weight of responsibility never really went away.
“It’s going to be really nice not to have to think about it all,” Ancona said.
The city of Ketchum has initiated a process to hire a new assistant chief to work with Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin. However, replacing Ancona will be difficult, McLaughlin said.
“Tom’s knowledge of firefighting and fire prevention is staggering,” McLaughlin said. “He will leave a big pair of shoes to fill. It has been an honor to work alongside him.”