Quilt of many fires

Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. Marilyn Fagerstrom, 87, began her firefighting career when she 55 years old. During her years of traveling to most of the larger wildfires in the west, she collected t-shirts that commemorated the blazes.



One day, recently, during a session with the Quirky Quilters, she mentioned that it would be nice to make a quilt of the 50 plus t-shirts stacked in her house.


It didn’t take much convincing to have quilter Bette Ventrella say, “Fine, we’ll do it” and the quilting ladies jumped in and prepared to take on the adventurous task.



The Quirky Quilters began about five years ago and consists of 16 members who all work together to create handmade, unique pieces of people’s lives, for people. Most of them learn through a show and tell technique. This particular quilt will be made two-sided and not filled, but tied on the corners.



Marilyn was a professor in Nebraska, teaching physical education and geology. Her husband was also a professor and when they both retired, they came to Colorado. They owned a cabin on the Bar K Ranch which they purchased in 1983, the eighth home in the subdivision.



She was 55 when she joined the Left Hand Fire Department on Overland Road. It was strictly a volunteer organization with no tax support.


“It is important that cities realize that Boulder County has these volunteer departments. When I joined, I was physically fit and went through all the trainings. I hauled hose and dug ditches and went out on wildfires. I had enough training to be called out to fire the federal fires, even one in California.”



She explained that when one signs up to fight fires, they could be sent anywhere all over the west. The Yellowstone Fire was the first out of district fire she went on. She was assigned to an engine crew and said, “It was scary as the dickens.” She spent three weeks in a federal camp and one night she saw on the fire house bulletin that there was a fire in Left Hand Canyon. They wouldn’t let her leave the Yellowstone Fire early. When she got back, the fire was bad, the trees torching in the Heil Ranch area.


“I got slurried during that one,” she remembers. “I didn’t bring my slurry shirt and that stuff doesn’t come out.”



Last week, the quilters and their sewing machines met in the basement of the St. Rita’s Church and spread the t-shirts out on tables, cutting the favorite ones into squares with the fire logo. Marilyn says that often during a big fire, native Americans would design and make the commemorative shirts and she bought one from every fire. They are each unique and beautiful, capturing the essence of the area of the fire.


Marilyn was at the Black Tiger Fire and the Big Elk Fire. She says the Overland Fire was probably the worst, the most dangerous one she was present for, as part of the hand crew at the beginning of the fire.



The more training the firefighter had, the more qualified they were to be with the crews that made the decisions. She decided she was becoming too old to be on the lines and became a Public Information Officer, the one who meets the residents and talks to the press.



One of the hardest times was during the Big Elk Fire in which three people died when a chopper went down and a slurry bomber went down. “I had to repeat that information over and over again.”



She said, “When I cut up those t-shirts, I cut up 30 years of my life. But they’ve been sitting around for five years doing nothing.”



She watched the squares being organized, laid out for color and design composition and remembered the place and time and people from every one of them.



“You work so closely on the lines, with lives at stake while houses are going up in flames and you develop this camaraderie, get to know the firefighters you work with. I still know a few old comrades who are hanging in there.”



Marilyn retired when she was 78 years old and added to the Congressional Record when she was 70 years old. Governor Udall’s office sent her a plaque praising her for dedication, especially as an older woman. When she went to her high school reunion, she was named as a Distinguished Alum.


Marilyn was most proud when she was asked to carry the Olympic Torch in Salt Lake City in 2002 as a tribute to her fellow firefighters.



“I had to hold it up in the air for a whole two blocks and it was heavy,” she says. “So I practiced carrying it up and down my driveway holding a broom in the air.”



Marilyn may have been a firefighter, but she is not a quilter. She was at a senior lunch one day and was talking about her t-shirts when Bette Ventrella picked up on it and offered to bring in the Quirky Quilters. Last Friday, July 7, the group began the project and said they would be finished in a couple of days.



“When I walked in and saw the squares all laid out, it brought tears to my eyes. Each square brought back such memories. I feel so honored.”

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.