Every summer, the very real threat of fire hovers over our mountain communities, and most residents have a tale to tell: the time they called in a smoke plume, the go-boxes prepared, the work they’ve done to mitigate their properties in an effort to stay safe. Last summer, I experienced my first fire evacuation since living in the mountains, and in the face of conflagration, all those efforts, the stories I’d told alongside my neighbors seemed so small.

The trucks rolled in, the helicopters flew overhead, and I understood in a new way the true heroism I was witnessing before I fled to safety: these were people staying behind, to fight, to run into the flames and save the day.

How do you care for the ones who take care of you? This was the question Bob Potrykus asked in 2002, when the Hayman Fire had consumed 140,000 acres of forest, 133 homes and the lives of firefighters—but it was only May. Fire season was only beginning, and already the fire departments’ budgets and resources had been eaten away.

“How do you care for the ones who take care of you?”

“These hard-pressed firefighters and volunteers were staring down what promised to be a long and desperate summer, without adequate safety equipment. So Potrykus enlisted the help of his friends: Bob Campbell, Chuck Hand, John Hecker, Steve Huckaby, Carl Stevens and Annette Schavietello. They were all hoping their houses wouldn’t catch fire and wanted to do everything they could to make sure the firefighters had everything they needed to do their jobs,” recalls Lora Knowlton, event director for the annual Big Chili Cook-off in Evergreen. “They held the first Big Chili at the Elks Lodge in Evergreen, featuring 22 different homemade chilis, attracting over 1,500 people. They raised over $5,000 for Elk Creek, Evergreen, Indian Hills, Inter-Canyon, North Fork and Platte Canyon volunteer fire departments.”

What starts as a small local endeavor can, in a short amount of time, transform into something much more powerful. It bears noting, considering the proximity to fire, that all it takes is a spark—but when it comes to quick-spreading community mindedness and giving back, one can only hope it’s catching!

The Big Chili Cook-off was. The next year, 2003, the event had doubled its attendance and moved to the Evergreen Lake House to accommodate the crowds. It was so successful that a public ballot was circulated for voting for your favorite chilis, and live music and the Firefighter Obstacle Course Challenge were added as crowd favorites and are still a part of the event today.

“Over the years, the event has continued to grow with business exhibitors, artists, food vendors and refreshing beverages to dazzle the pallet in between chili samples,” says Knowlton. “Due to the growth, we moved to Buchanan Park in 2014, where there is more space to expand and grow.”

Grow it has, and today, the Big Chili Cook-off is one of the most popular summer events in the mountain area. Canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, it was back last year with record attendance and a record $57,000 to be divided amongst the six volunteer fire departments! It has increased fun for the town and its visitors—but what’s more, it’s growing support for an issue that should be top-priority for all of the mountain residents who so directly benefit from firefighters’ heroism every year.

This year’s Big Chili Cook-off will take place on Saturday, September 10, from 10 am to 5 pm at Buchanan Park. Knowlton, who is serving her ninth year as event director, expects it to be as exciting as ever—and hopefully even bigger! “We are hoping to have more chili cooks,” she says. “While we had record attendance last year, we struggled to find those who wanted to cook their favorite recipes. Aside from the usual event attractions, we will be shaking the tree looking for more chili cooks.”

Up here in the mountains, winning the Big Chili Cook-off is a storied honor, and the list of past winners lives on at bigchili.org! Every year, entries are judged for different categories, including Best Red Chili, Best Green Chili, Best Vegetarian Chili, Best Restaurant Chili, as well as the People’s Choice in every division. The fire departments also enter chili recipes for their own division, Best Fire Department Chili, and the winners take home the coveted trophy, which lives at that fire station until the next year.

Whether you’re a chili chef or not, there are plenty of ways to be involved, and as with any major fundraising event, Big Chili is always in need of volunteers. The whole endeavor is organized by a small board of directors and community members who are passionate about supporting their heroes. Local businesses and creators can also participate and reach an ever-growing audience by signing up as a vendor.

For mountain area residents and families wanting to join the fun and support the fire departments, there’s no chili contest without tasters! Big Chili even attracts daytrippers and out-of-towners looking for a great Saturday of live music, food vendors, artist booths, and business exhibitors. The whole day is designed for family fun and inspiration.

“Every year, we open with bagpipers and a moment of silence for the firefighters who are no longer with us,” Knowlton explains. “In the past few years, we’ve had Flight for Life fly in and land at the event, so kids and their families get the chance to talk with the pilot—maybe even sit in the seat of the helicopter. We have a small Kids Firefighter Challenge, where the kids turn on a fire hose and try to spray a cone to knock it over.” These moments are filled with excitement, cheering, laughing—but Knowlton also notes there’s an undertone of something bigger at work. “Sometimes I wonder how many of these kids will grow up to be firefighters after being inspired by a Big Chili firefighter?”

Because in the activity and music, the joy and the chili-tasting, it’s important to not lose sight of how it all began: Every year, the more than 350 men and women of the Elk Creek Volunteer Fire Department, the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department, the Indian Hills Volunteer Fire Department, the Inter-Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, the North Fork Volunteer Fire Department and the Platte Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, protect nearly 900 square miles of our resident land and wildlands. They tend to forests, mountains, and rocky terrain sitting 7,500 miles above sea level, fielding an average of 4,500 calls per year. And these monumental efforts are a volunteer service, available to us even though tax dollars fall short. We all want to protect our homes, and we should be deeply moved to care for the ones making that effort a possibility.

To all of our mountain area firefighters—thank you. Visit bigchili.org/firefighters to learn more about these incredible organizations.

For those looking to attend or participate in Big Chili this September, please visit bigchili.org for event information, parking instructions and more.