The role of town fire warden has changed over the years, as has the world of dairy farming. Joseph “Joe” Denardo knows both.
Denardo has been the Rutland Town fire warden for 40 years. He was recently recognized by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation for his years of service at an annual dinner and meeting for forest fire wardens. At the April 2 Select Board meeting, Denardo was also recognized by the board, of which he’s also a member.
Denardo has served on the Rutland Town Fire Department for 46 years. He was its chief for roughly 10 years and has been a lieutenant off and on for several years. He said he’s less active with the department these days, but keeps in touch with its leaders while issuing burn permits.
“It was brought up at a fire department meeting in 1978 that the town should get back into the Fire Warden System because in the old days, and up until four years ago, the state paid for part of fire suppression anywhere in the state of Vermont,” Denardo said Tuesday at his farm on North Grove Street.
Denardo said his grandfather bought the farm 100 years ago, not long after coming to Vermont from Italy. It was a dairy farm for most of its existence, but the last of its cows was sold in 2015, said Denardo. Keeping the farm going is a struggle, he said, one he and his family have so far been able to manage through selling hay and doing some mechanic work. He said like many Vermont dairy farms, his was unable to keep selling milk because of the pricing system.
He has no immediate plans to quit being the town fire warden, and has several years left on his five-year appointment.
Denardo said the fire warden job used to be a lifetime appointment, which he learned when he called the state 40 years ago after his initial appointment. The person he spoke to chuckled and said it wasn’t that simple, that the Select Board had to be involved. He also learned the town had never left the Town Fire Warden System, it was just that the fire warden at the time hadn’t been active.
He officially became fire warden in January 1979.
“Basically it was to oversee outside, open burning,” he said. “There were a number of benefits, but one the town took immediate advantage of was the municipal burn site. We have a permit to have a municipal burn site where residents can bring clean, natural wood and the town can burn it. It does away with some of the backyard stuff, and as towns develop and neighborhoods get closer, this works out really good.”
He said the burn site had its growing pains, but most of the kinks are ironed out and it’s managed well by Town Road Commissioner Byron Hathaway.
Denardo said he and the fire department’s two assistant chiefs can issue burn permits. He said there’s a system in place now with which the fire department knows who’s permitted to burn in order to prevent needless fire calls.
“For the most part, permits are issued over the phone,” Denardo said. “If it’s somebody we don’t know, we’ll go up and see what they’re doing.”
He said there’s currently no town burn ordinance, and per state law, one doesn’t need a permit if there’s snow on the ground, though Denardo asks people to call anyway. It’s not legal to burn anything other than clean, natural wood in any case, he said.
“My job has changed a little bit from protecting the forest to protecting the environment,” he said. “It’s always been an environmental thing, but now there’s a lot of emphasis on what people are burning and pollutants that are in some of this stuff. That’s why they banned trash burning and stuff.”
According to the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, the Town Fire Warden System started in 1904.
Back then, there were fewer synthetic materials to worry about.
“Now we try to educate people, to make sure they know what they’re burning and to make sure it’s legal,” Denardo said.
“The biggest fire we had here was Pine Hill, that was 1963, that burned about 75 acres between Rutland Town and Proctor,” Denardo said. “We’ve had a few acre fires here and there but nothing super-big.”
He remembers going up to the fire on a Sunday night with his father, sisters, uncle and the fire warden.
“Six of us went up there, and we found a bunch of stuff burning,” he said. “We thought we had it out pretty good, and I got up to go to school and the yard was full of trucks and cars. In the night the wind had come up. It was really eerie to be here and look up back, I would’ve been 9 years old, and you’re looking up there and you think the world’s on fire, just a huge glow in the sky there. It was unbelievable.”
It took four days to put the Pine Hill fire out, and there was a fire watch in effect for weeks afterward, he said.
Denardo doesn’t issue burn permits on Sundays, he said. This was part of the town’s since-repealed burning ordinance — which Denardo thinks should be reinstated — and it’s a policy he’s continued, mainly to try and give the fire department at least one day a week it won’t be called to a fire.
He said he gives everyone calling for a burn permit “the spiel,” whether they’ve heard it before or not.
“Can’t create a nuisance, can only burn clean, natural wood, you have to be with the fire when it’s burning, it has to be out by dark and no burning on Sundays.”